Modern Poetry and the Christian Tradition
312 Pages
English

Modern Poetry and the Christian Tradition

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In Modern Poetry and the Christian Tradition, Wildler examines this movement in poetry in relation to the direction in which our culture is moving. He interprets the significance of modern poetry and shows its relation to the "traditional." He gives attention to the representative poets of our time (including Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Allen Tate, W. H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot and others); he notes the wider implications of their work and assesses from them the impulses and trends of our age.
As a poet of considerable ability, as a student of literary criticism for many years, and as a teacher, Wilder is in a position to know and understand his subject. The result is a book of permanent value to all concerned with the deeper meanings of civilization and Christianity.

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MODERN POETRY
AND THE
CHRISTIAN TRADITION AWARDED THE DECENNIAL BROSS PRIZE
MODERN POETRY
AND THE
CHRISTIAN TRADITION:
A STUDY IN THE RELATION
OF
CHRISTIANITY TO CULTURE
AMOS N. WILDER
Test the spirits whether they are of God
I JOHN iv, i
WIPF & STOCK , Eugene, Oregon Wipf and Stock Publishers
199 W 8th Ave, Suite 3
Eugene, OR 97401

Modern Poetry and the Christian Tradition
A Study in the Relation of Christianity to Culture
By Wilder, Amos and Hawkins, Peter S.
Copyright©1952 by Wilder, Amos
ISBN 13: 978-1-62564-506-7
Publication date 1/3/2014
Previously published by Charles Scribner, 1952
TO
WARD DIX KERLIN
IN MEMORIAM
AND
JENNEY GILBERT KERLIN b
l
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S S Fd tew o
A S N. r A
Given the superfluity of books in the world, there has to be a
compelling reason to reissue those that have gone out of print. Most ofen
a curious reader can rely successfully on interlibrary loan or Google
Books to gain access to what the publishing world has otherwise let
drop. But this piecemeal retrieval is not sufcient when an author,
rather than a single volume, warrants being brought back into circulation;
when there is a whole body of work deserving of a fresh audience. Such
is the case with Amos Niven Wilder (18951993 – ), whose prodigious
writing, spanning the better part of a century, claims our attention with
its extraordinary variety of genres (poetry, essay, and memoir) and
disciplines (biblical study, literary criticism, theology).
First, the man behind the publications. A gif for writing and a
passion for literature were very much in the family’s DNA. Named for
his newspaper-publisher father, Amos was the eldest of fve, four of
whom distinguished them as writers. Most famous of them was his only
brother, the playwright and novelist Tornton Wilder, about whom
he wrote “Tornton Wilder and His Public” in 1980Educ.ated at Yale
University, from which he eventually received four degrees, he also
undertook biblical and theological studies in France and Belgium but
most importantly at Mansfeld College, Oxford, where he encountered
the likes of Albert Schweitzer (Te Quest of the Historical) a Jend C.H.sus
Dodd (renown for the notion of “realized eschatology,” wherein the end
is not near but now). Tese years of schooling launched his career as a
distinguished New Testament scholar at Andover-Newton Teological
Seminary, the Chicago Teological Seminary and the University of
Chicago, and fnally at Harvard Divinity School. Yet perhaps more crucial
iiiiv SERIES FOREWORD
to his personal development than this academic training was his service
in World War i, during which time he served as a volunteer ambulance
driver in France and Macedonia (receiving the Croix de guerre) and later
saw signifcant action as a corporal with the U.S. Army feld artillery in
France. Tat the “Great War” shaped his life and career is suggested by
the works that bracket his publications: his frst book, a collection of
poems, Battle Retrospect (1923), and his very last, Armageddon Revisited:
A World War I Journal (1994). Both bear witness to a traumatic wartime
experience that neither destroyed him nor ever let him go.
For many, the trenches marked the end of faith, but not for Wilder.
Upon his discharge he went to Yale Divinity School, was ordained in the
Congregational Church, and served briefy as a parish minister in New
Hampshire. By the end of the 1920s, however, he was back at Yale to do
doctoral work in the New Testameimnpte. lled by a fascination with
eschatology, that branch of theology concerned with “last things,” he
focused research and imagination on traditional themes: death, the end
of the world, and the ultimate destiny of humanity. But this was no
antiquarian theological interest; it was his way into a deeper understanding
of the Gospel and the times in which he liv it is noed. t difcult to
connect the academic study that culminated in Eschatology and Ethics in the
Teaching of Jesu (s 1939, 1950, 1978) with the trauma of World W i; iatr
is even easier to understand why throughout his career he was drawn
to the apocalyptic literature of both Jews and Chrisin F tiraannce hes.
had been inside an apocalypse, had felt the earth reel and rock, had
seen the foundations of the world laid b Saarm. e (222: 8, 16). it would
not do to dismiss these biblical visions, as many did at the time - , as sur
real and grotesque fantasy; they were, he would argue, grounded in an
actual Armageddon he had witnessed frsthand. “Reality” as it had been
known before the world had been torn open for judg imet was timent.
for revelation.
Te correspondence Wilder saw between ancient apocalyptic and
the experience of his own generation—between notions of biblical
crisis and the revolutions of the twentieth century—inspired an already vSERIES FOREWORD
established biblical scholar to become a literary critic as well. Turning
to texts sacred and secular, ancient and modern, he discovered in them
a common situation, what in a 1971 essay he called “nakedness to
Being,” an “immediacy to the dynamics of existence.” When you live in a
ruined world, you must study the ruins. Literature was a place to begin.
He began, in fact, with the particular literature of biblical writers:
parable, myth, apocalypse, and Christian rhetoric in all its forms.
Moreover, rather than travel the well-worn, dusty paths of the New Testament
academy, Wilder invested himself in an exploration of biblical
imagination at a time (unlike the present day) when few were doing so. What
precisely was the world the Scriptures asked us to enter, and how did
language bring it to life? Parable and apocalyptic were especially compelling
to him as they emerged, he argued, from “a crucible where the world is
made and unmade.”
Wilder did not approach the Bible “as literature,” but rather as the
Word of God articulated in a variety of literary forms. He welcomed
the new attention being paid by literary scholars to the Scriptures—
Northrop Frye, Robert Alter, Frank Kermode—and was grateful that
windows had been opened “in an ancient library long obscured by
stained glass and cobwebs” (as he wrote in an endorsement of Alter
and Kermode’s Literary Guide to the Bible). Yet he was not uncritical
of what they found on the sacred page, nor did his interest in literary
theory prevent him from arguing against the Deconstructionist notion
that biblical narrative ( Kpaceermode’s Te Genesis of Secrecy) was
fnally indeterminate and open-ended. For Wilder, the Gospel of Mark,
for instance, was “too urgent for puzzles and mystifcation”; it was not a
cryptogram but an “opening and crowning disclosure” of g lory.
in a daring move for a “guild” scholar, even one long drawn to
questions of biblical interpretation, Wilder also opened his readers to
the poetry, fction, and drama of the twentieth century. An early foray
into this career-long exploration was Te Spiritual Aspects of Modern
Poetry in 1940; a decade later came the decennial Bross Prize-winning
Modern Poetry and the Christian Tradition (1952), Teology and Modern vi SERIES FOREWORD
Literature (1958), and then Te New Voice: Religion, Literature, and
Hermeneutics (1969), where he touches on novelists (Proust, Gide,
Sartre) and poets (Eliot, Robert Lowell, David Jones). Tese books
invite the theological reader to be at once nourished and challenged
by twentieth-century literature. However, the were written not only to
expand the horizons of biblical scholars, but also to develop an interest
in religion among those not inclined to seek it out. Still more ambitious
is Wilder’s 1976 book, Teopoet, wic ith its call for a renewal of biblical
religion itself through the cultivation of the imagination. Tis required
the risk of the new, stepping beyond the safety of the familiar and
timeworn to explore deeper waters: “Old words do not reach across the new
gulfs, and it is only in vision and oracle that we can chart the unknown
and new-name the creatures.” Before the message, came the vision;
before the sermon, the hymn; before the prose, the poem. (He began his
life as a writer in 1923, afer all, as a Yale Younger Poet.)
Wilder’sT e Bible and the Literary Critic, published in 1991—just
thtwo years before his death in his y 98ear—ofers his own
retrospection on a life’s work spent on a border between Scripture and literature,
proclamation and critique, God’s Word and the poet’s new account of
everything old. Tanks to Wipf & Stock’s republication of his works in
“Te Amos N. Wilder Library,” we now have a chance not merely to
look back on an extraordinarily varied creative life but to realize anew
what it stands to ofer our future explorations of the Bible a-nd its liter
ary aferlife.
Peter S. Hawkins
Professor of Religion and Literature
Yale Divinity School
New Haven, CT
October2013 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The author acknowledges with thanks his debt to the individuaJs, periodicals
and publishing houses listed below for permission to use copyrighted material.
Harper and Brothers for use of selections from A STREET IN BRONZEVJLLE
by Gwendolyn Brooks, copyright, 1945 by Gwendolyn Brooks Blakely~ and
for material from SPIRITUAL AsPECTS OF NEW POETRY b}' Amos N. Wilaer.
Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc. for use of material from EssAY ON RIME,
CO:Qyright, 1945, by Karl Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Brace
and Company, Inc. For material from Fmm QuARTETS, copyright, 1943, by
T. S. Eliot. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.
From Tm: FAMILY REUNION, copyright, 1989, by T. S. Eliot. Reprinted by
permission of Harcourt, Brace and Company Inc. From THE CocrrAIL PARTY,
CO:Qyright, 1950, by T. S. Eliot. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Brace
and Company, Inc. For selections from the poem "The First Sunday In Lent,"
from LoRD WEARY's CASTLE, copyright, 1944, 1946, by Robert Lowell. Re­
printed by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Com_pany, Inc. And for selec­
tions from the poem "Conversation Overheard in the Subway" from AFrER­
NOON OF A PAWNBROKER AND OTHER PoEMS, copyright, 1943, by Kenneth
Fearing. Re_printed by permission of Harcourt, Brace and Companr,, Inc.
Vanguard Press, Inc. for use of the pqem "Still Falls the Rain' reprinted
by permission of Vanguard Press, Inc. from THE CANTICLE OF THE RosE:
PoEMS 1917-1949 by Edith Sitwell. Copyright 1949 by Edith Sitwell.
Oxford University Press for the use of eight selections from PoEMS OF
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS, copyright 1980; and for material Tm: CoR­
RESPONDENCE oF GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS AND RICHARD WATSON DixoN
by C. C. Abbot, copyright 1985.
Charles Scribner s Sons for use of selections from the poem "Tetelestai" by
Conrad Aiken which appears in his SELECTED PoEMS copyright 1988; and for 1
selections from the poems "The Last Dais of Alice,' "Sonnets At Christmas,"
and "More Sonnets At Christmas" by Allen Tate, all of which are reprinted
from PoEMS: 1922-1947 by Allen Tate., copyright 1982, 1987, 1948 by Charles
Scribner's Sons; used by permission ot the publishers.
of selections from three poems in EXILE AND Pantheon Books, Inc. for use
OTHER PoEMS by St.-John Perse, co_pyright 1949; for material from Cauu.Es
PEGUY: MEN AND SAINTS by Julian Green, copyright 1944; and MYSTERE
DES SAINTs-lNNocENTS by Charles Peguy, translated by Julian Green.
The Macmillan Company for use of selections from the poems "Vacillation"
and "The Second Coming" from COLLECTED POEMS OF WILLIAM BUTLER
YEATS, copyright 1950 by Macmillan; "In Distrust of Merits" from NEVERTHE·
LESS by Marianne Moore, copyright '1944; and for material CmusTIAN
DISCRIMINATION by Brother George Every.
Sheed and Ward, Inc. for use of material from JAcoB's N1GBT by Wallace
Fowlie, copyright Sheed and Ward, Inc., New Yorlc, 1947.
vn ACKNOWLEDGMENTS vm
Columbia University Press for use of material from Vol. I, copyright 1989,
and Vol. Ill, copyright 1949, of RELIGIOUS TIIENDs IN ENGLISH POETRY by
Hoxie N. Fairchild.
Cambridge University Press for use of material from THE POETRY OF GERARD
MANLEY HOPKINS by E. E. Phare.
Random House, Inc. for use of selections from RoAN STALLION, TAMAR AND
Orm:n POEMS by Robinson Jeffers; of selections and six ~ms from THE
COLLECTED POETRY OF W. H. AUDEN, copyright 1945; and from the poem
"Prayer in Mid-Passage" from SPRINGBOARD by Louis MacNeice, copyright
1945; from THE AGE OF ANXIETY, copyright 1947; for selections from the
poem "A Christmas Oratorio" from FoR THE TIME BEING, copyright 1944, both
by W. H. Auden.
The Dial Press for use of selections from LITTLE FRIEND, LITTLE FRIEND
by Randal Jarrell, copyright 1945; and for the poems "Poetry" and "Roses
Only" from OBSERVATIONS by Marianne Moore, copyright 1924.
Abingdon-Cokesbury Press for use of material from "T. S. Eliot's The Cock­
tail Party: Of Redemption and Vocation" by Nathan A. Scott, Jr. which ap­
peared in Religion In Life, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1951.
New Directions Press, 383 Sixth Avenue, New York City, for use of the
poem "In the Ruins of New York" from FIGURES FOR AN APOCALYPSE, copy­
right 1947; and for selections from A MAN IN THE DIVIDED SEA, copyright
1946; from THE TEARS OF THE BLIND LION, copyright 1949, all by Thomas
Merton; from IN THE DREAMS BEGIN REsPONSIBILITIES, by Delmore Schwartz,
copyright 1988; and for the _poem "Especially When the October Wind" from
SELECTED WRITINGS, copyright 1947; for material from THE WoRLD I BREATHE,
copyrildit 1989, both by Dylan Thomas; and for use of the poem "Blandula,
Tenulla, Vagula," from THE SELECTED POEMS OF EZRA POUND.
The Harvard University Press for use of material from "The Drift to Liberal­
ism in the Eighteenth Century" by Howard Mumford Jones, which appeared
in AUTHORITY AND THE INDIVIDUAL, published in 1987.
Martin Secker & Warberg, Ltd. for use of material from THE DOUBLE
IMAGE: MUTATIONS OF CHRISTIAN MYTHOLOGY IN THE WORK OF FOUR FRENCH
CATHOLIC WRITERS OF TODAY by Reynal Heppenstall, copyright 1947.
Longmans, Green & Co., Inc. for use of material from PEGUY AND LES
CAHIERS DE LA QuJNZAINE by Daniel Halevy. ·
The John Rylands Library for use of material from "Some Approaches to
Religion Through Poetry During the Past Two Generations" by C. H. Herford,
which appeared in the Bulletin, Vol. VII, No. 1, July, 1922.
Poetry, A Magazine of V et"se for use of selections from "Poem" by Anne
Ridley, which appeared in the June 1949 issue, page 141.
Christianity and Crisis for use of material from "Secularism in Church and
Synagogue" by Will Herberg, which appeared in Vol. X, No. 8, May 15, 1950.
The Partisan Review for use of material from "T. S. Eliot as the Inter­
national Hero" by Delmore Schwartz, which appeared in Vol. XII, No. 2,
Spring, 1945.
Marion Saunders Literary Agency for use of selections from the poem
"Thomas Gray In Patterdale," from Rocx: FACE by Norman Nicholson, pub­
lished by Faber and Faber, copyright 1948.
Mr. Selden Rodman for use of material from his review "Poems from a
Boston Jeremiah" which appeared in the New York Times Book Review
section of November 8, 1946.
The Rev. Terence L. Connolly for use of three selections from PoEMS OF
FRANCIS TooMPSON, edited by Father Connolly and published by Appleton­
Century-Crofts, copyright 1941.
Miss Victoria Sackville-West for use of selections from her book THE LAND,
published by William Heinemann, copyright 1927. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS IX
Mr. Alexander Koyre for use of material from his book ENTRETIENs SUR
DEscARTES, published by Brentanos, Inc., copyright 1944.
Mr. Delmore Schwartz and The Kenyon Review for use of selections from
"Starlight Like Intuition Pierced the Twelve" by Delmore Schwartz, which
appeared in The Kenyon Review, VI, 3, Summer, 1944.
Mr. Wallace Stevens, Alfred A. Kno_pf, Inc., and The Kenyon Review for
use of selections from "The Auroras of Autumn" by Wallace Stevens which
first appeared in The Kenyon Review., X, 1, Winter, 1948 and later in the book
Tm: AURORAS OF AUTUMN, publishea by Alfred A. Knopf.
The author acknowledges with thanks permission to use here with some
revision material of his own previously published.
To Harper and Brothers for the use in Chapter III of his chapter, "The
Spirit of Our Culture" in Tm: CHALLENGE OF OUR Cux:ruRE ( Interseminary
Series, Vol. I), 1946; for the use in Chapter II of several pages from his
chapter, "Literary Sources" in FOUNDATIONS OF DEMOCRACY 1947 ( an address
given under. the auspices of the Institute for Religious and Social Studies-to
which acknowledgment is likewise made); for the use also in Chapter II of
several pages from his chapter "The Christian Tradition in Modem Culture"
in THE VITALITY OF THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION, 1944.
Chapters IX and X represent revision and amplification of two lectures given
at the Andover Newton Theological School in 1949 on the Stephen Greene
Foundation, the first of which was published in the Andover Newton Bulletin,
February 1950. The second is to 1:ie by Harper and Brothers in a
forthcoming volume edited by Dr. Stanley Hopper for the Institute of Religious
and Social Studies entitled, CONTEMPORARY SPIRITUAL PROBLEMS AS RE­
FLECTED IN CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE. Permission to use these two lectures
is gratefully acknowledged.
In Chapter VIII a section is taken over with thanks from the author's article,
"The Protestant Witness in Contemporary Poetry," in Theology Today, Vol VI,
No. 2, July, 1949. ·
The author wishes to record his special appreciation to the Edward W.
Hazen Foundation and Haddam House, for whom the volume was first planned,
for their generosity in permitting him to submit the manuscript for the Bross
Prize. PREFACE
IT should not be necessary today to justify close attention on
the part of Christians to the artistic movements of our time. We
are no longer satisfied with the view that art is a kind of
decoration on the surface of life, or that poetry is a kind of
marginal luxury, a form of escapism that may be tolerantly in­
dulged. We recognize rather that the creative, imaginative ex­
pressions of culture are often our best clues to the diagnosis of
men's hearts and the deeper movements of the age.
Theological study and discussion give good heed today to
contemporary movements in philosophy and science. They
likewise concern themselves with the social phenomena of the
time. But any true understanding of the modern situation re­
quires similar attention to the deeper cultural factors as they
reveal themselves in the arts and in related symbolic expres­
sion. This is evidently not just a matter of studying the uses of
the arts in the church: church music, church architecture,
sacred poetry and hymnology, and religious drama. It is rather
a matter of observing and interpreting the modem arts gen­
erally: poetry, fiction, drama, criticism, painting, music, etc.,
viewed as indices of the modem crisis and of the spiritual
alternatives and trends of the time.
The scriptural figure of the faithful as God's watchmen is
suggestive here. The eyes of the Lord are upon the transac­
tions of men. The eyes of the church must be constantly
directed to the deeper hungers and dilemmas of men, testing
XI XII PREFACE
the spirits, noting the emergence of new insights, and ready
also to learn from new and often magnificent creations
prompted by the secret working of the Spirit. Ezekiel's symbol­
ism for the activity of God among men is relevant here, that
of the chariot, the wheels and the cherubim, "fuII of eyes rou:µd
about," suggesting as it does God's omniscient scrutiny of
man's life.
The character of our culture makes such scrutiny of the arts
specially imperative today. The alienation of large elements of
society from the religious institutions, their partial alienation,
indeed, from the Christian tradition itself, has resulted in a
remarkable situation. If this alienation were complete, if we
had to do actually with a "post-Christian" epoch, the problem
would be clearer. But the situation is a complex one. Large
strata and movements in the western world are outside the
church. But the religious tradition operates in them still in an
indirect and disguised way. The river has gone underground;
it has not ceased to How • • The faith has taken on ambiguous
expressions in a wide gamut running from mild to acute sec­
ularization. The historical background of this situation must
be studied if we are to assess the present situation justly. The
issues here are so profound and delicate that a scrutiny of the
·arts becomes mandatory for any adequate appraisal.
The most remarkable feature of this situation is that the
custody and fu~e of the Christian tradition has to a consider­
able degree passed over into the keeping of non-ecclesiastical
and even secular groups. The fateful issues of the Christian
faith are often wrestled with more profoundly outside the
church than within. The crisis of modem culture has in many
respects taken the church by surprise; that is, the deeper move­
ments of the age have outrun the church and left much of its
experience, formulation, apologetic behind for the time being.
There has been an exceptional widening of the gulf between
the religious institutions and Christendom itself, leaving the PREFACE XIII
church and its immediate constituency in relative isolation.
The terms in which the church continues to bear its historic
and pure witness are too often unmeaningful even to those
secularized groups in which the tradition is still powerful. The
message lacks relevance because its expression has not been
shaped in adequate awareness of the modern experience. The
church, moreover, is itseH to such a degree under judgment
that its conscious authority is shaken, the power of the keys
undermined.
Therefore large elements in Christendom have perforce had
to deal with religious and theological issues on their own terms.
The Spirit has continued to operate on the hearts of men out­
side the churches as well as within, through uncanonical as well
as canonical channels. In a period of cultural crisis like ours
with its accompanying costs and anguish, the secular world
has been constrained for its very life to identify the spiritual
resources needed for survival, and to come to terms in its own
way with the moral and religious traditions of the West. It is
not surprising, therefore, that the major works of contemporary
literature are undeniably theological in character. The period
is one of spiritual gestation. We are confronted on all sides
with a spiritual ferment, an existential wrestling, an exploration
of ultimate issues. Much of this moves on the margin at least
of the biblical view of man and history. Striking instances
appear of secular or uncanonical witness to Christian faith,
besides actual conversions or returns to Christian confession
and practice.
More significant, however, than the evidences of actual re­
turn to the church is the process of reconception of the faith
which is going on both within and outside the institutions.
The modern situation, both in its external aspects of wars and
economic insecurity, and in its deeper aspects of dehumaniza­
tion and "lostness," serves as a crucible for the reformulation
of Christian faith and community. Contribution to this de-XIV PREFACE
velopment comes both from outside and inside the religious
institutions today, both from Christendom in the wider sense
and from the churches themselves. But the contribution of
those outside, of «the outriders of the tradition," is often the
most significant just because these witnesses speak out of im­
mediate initiation into the stresses of the age.
In these circumstances it is evident that wide opportunities
are open for new forms of apologetic and defense of the faith.
Secular literature moves toward theological and Christian
themes. Christian writers move toward a presentation of the
faith in terms of the modem experience. That "cultural van­
guard" in the church which Paul Tillich sees as necessary for
spiritual reconstruction is more and more active. In the last
decade or two an increasing number of Christian writers,
baptized into the modem experience and sensibility and at
home in the modem arts, have entered this field. Much of the
most significant work in literary criticism in our time, more­
over, inevitably passes over into what can only be called a
theological level. This has been inevitable since the creative
writers at the forefront of attention today among those con­
cerned with world literature and the humanities cannot be
dealt with in strictly esthetic terms. All in all, a powerful move­
ment of theological inquiry, assessment of the Christian
tradi. tion in the West, and apologetic has emerged in connection
with modem imaginative literature and criticism. The ground
upon which such discussion moves and the outcomes may
often fall short of what might be desired in the way of tradi­
tional commitment and orthodox formulation. Here is where
the obligation to test the spirits becomes imperative. But it is
just because such formulation today calls for restatement and
because the meaning of orthodoxy requires clarification that
all such reassessment is important.
The plan of the present volume follows from these consid-PREFACE xv
erations. Our final interest is in the vitality and operation of
the· Christian tradition, the work of the Holy Spirit, in our
contemporary world, especially in its secularized aspects. Thus
our particular topic is set in the larger frame of the relation of
the church to contemporary culture. The :field of observation
we· choose is that of modem poetry, the poetry, that is, which
reflects our modem crisis. This :field is enlarged occasionally by
reference to imaginative literature generally and to contem­
porary criticism. The implications of the discussion often in­
volve all the modem arts. Our :first task is, then, to give atten­
tion to representative poets of our time, to note the wider im­
plications of their work, and so to "test the spirits" and assess
the impulses and trends of our age. Such a scrutiny evidently
also offers us opportunity for further acquaintance with the
artistic achievement of various gifted poets of our time whose
work is :first of all to be recognized as art in its own right.
An accompanying aim in these chapters has been to interpret
the significance of modem poetry, in the sense in which it is
used here, and to justify the importance we assign to it. There
are many readers today for whom the new poetry is still an
undiscovered country or for its features are occasion of
demurral if not scandal. We have therefore devoted chapters
IV, V and VI to discussion of the relation of "traditional" to
"modem" poetry, availing ourselves of the opportunity to con­
tinue our introduction of the work of non-traditional writers.
We desire to lay emphasis on the importance of the cultural
and social context of our discussion. Interpretation of the
modem arts is deprived of the major part of its significance if
their interrelations with the situation of modem society are
overlooked. But here some historical setting is indispensable.
Chapters II and III present this cultural context essential for
understanding either the arts or the spiritual issues of our
century.
Finally, we have been concerned to distinguish the poetry XVI PREFACE
of Catholic, Anglican and Protestant background and inspira­
tion in assessing the artistic fertility of the Christian tradition
today. The special resources or limitations of each community
in the faith, the flexibility of Christian symbolism in its en­
counter with a new world, these are significant factors in assess­
ing the modem relevance of the Christian faith. Here too the
basic question of the relation of poetry to religion is involved
and to this we devote our first chapter. CONTENTS
PAGE
XI PREFACE
1 I. POETRY AND RELIGION
4 1. THE ORIGINS OF POETRY
6 2. POETRY IN THE BIBLE AND THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
3. DISPARAGEMENT OF THE POET'S FUNCTION ON
RELIGIOUS GROUNDS 10
4. THE AUTONOMY OF POETRY 15
21 II. THE BACKGROUND: A CULTURAL RETROSPECT
1. THE CHRISTIAN "MYTH" AND THE NEW FORCES 23
2. THE TRADITION AND THE ROMANTIC
MOVEMENT 28
31 3. PURITANISM AND AMERICAN CULTURE
38 4. A DIVERGENT CULTURAL ANALYSIS
CULTURAL CRISIS AND THE CONFUSION OF III.
44 TONGUES
1. DISINTEGRATION: RECENT BACKGROUND 46
2. THE CONTEMPORARY PICTURE 50
3. REINTEGRATION: NEW ORDERS AND NEW CULTS 59
RE-ASSESSING "TRADITIONAL" POETRY 69 N.
1. "TRADITIONAL" POETRY AS A CULTURAL SURVIVAL 71
2. HANDICAPS OF THE "TRADITIONAL" POET 76
v. NATURE IN TRADITIONAL AND MODERN POETRY 87
1. THE LAND, BY V. SACKVILLE-WEST 89
2. NATURE IN APOCALYPSE: NORMAN NICHOLSON 97
3. MAN AND NATURE IN DYLAN THOMAS 100
4. NATURE AND THE IMMACULATE WORD IN ST.-JOHN
PERSE 103
VI. THE RENEWAL OF CATHOLIC DEVOTIONAL
POETRY 112
1. FRANCIS THOMPSON'S "FROM THE NIGHT OF
FOREBEING" 114
2. THE DILEMMA OF CATHOLIC SYMBOLISM 126
xvn xvm CONTENTS
3. Pll:GUY: POET OF CHRISTIAN FRANCE 130
4. CONTEMPORARY CATHOLIC POETRY 137
VII. GERARD MANLEY HOPKI.NS: THE PRIEST AS POET 148
1. AMA NESCIRI 148
2. "STRUNG BY DUTY AND STRAINED BY BEAUTY" 152
3. LINEAGE AND MODERN RELEVANCE 156
4. THE TERRIBLE CRYSTAL 161
5. ART AND RELIGIOUS VOCATION 167
VIII. SECULAR INVOLVEMENT: POETRY OF PROTESTANT
AND ANGLICAN BACKGROUND 176
1. THE CHRISTIAN ARTIST AND THE WORLD: THE
THREE ALTERNATIVES 178
2. ACUTE SECULARIZATION 182
3. THE LIVING TRADITION 187
4. ART AND THE PROTESTANT PRINCIPLE 190
5. MR. W. H. AUDEN: TOWARDS A NEW CHRISTIAN
SYNTHESIS 196
IX. THE SHAKING OF THE FOUNDATIONS 205
1. THE NEW APOCALYPSE 207
2. THE VISION OF EVIL 216
3. THE THEME OF PURGATION: MR. ELIOT'S THE
FAMILY REUNION 223
X. VICISSITUDES OF CHRISTIAN BELIEF 231
1. THE DILEMMA OF FAITH 231
2. MR. ALLEN TATE'S "SONNETS AT CHRISTMAS" 236
3. MR. WALLACE STEVENS' "SUNDAY MORNING" 239
4. THE OUTRIDERS AND THE TRADITION 242
5. THE LATER STEVENS: "CREDENCES" AND
"FICTIONS" 245
6. RECOVERY OF THE TRADITION: MR AUDEN'S
"CHRISTMAS ORATORIO" 251
XI. THE SURPRISES OF GRACE 257
l. SECULAR THEOLOGY AND WITNESS 259
2. THE DARK DOVE: GRACE IN CATASTROPHE 269.
3. GRACE AND DISPOSSESSION IN ELIOT'S FOUR
QUARTETS 274
THE BROSS FOUNDATION 281
INDEX 285 The rediscovery of a Christian heritage
in the revolution of our time remains the
most important gain· that has been made
in these last years for the conscience of
our generation.
IGNAZIO SILONE
And He shall convict Israel through the
chosen ones of the Gentiles,
Even as He reproved Esau through the
Midianites ...
Becoming therefore children in the por­
tion of them that fear the Lord.
'l'ESTAMENT OF BENJAMIN
X, IO I
POETRY AND RELIGION
HE relation of poetry to religion, more particularly of T
poetic to religious experience, is a perennial question. We
are obliged to come to terms with it as best we can for the pur­
poses of this study. We meet head on here the whole problem
of the esthetic life. It is presupposed throughout our examina­
tion of modem poetry that esthetic expression has bearings that
are more than esthetic in the narrow sense. We believe that the
experience of the artist and of those that encounter the work
of art, of the poet and the reader of poetry, partakes of the
character of religious experience and of religious vision. But
many qualifications are in order here. Perh~ps the best service
our present chapter can render is to present the many-sided­
ness of the matter and so forestall oversimplification.
Popular misconceptions as to the relation of poetry and
religion fall commonly into two types. There is the mystical or
spiritualist view that all poetry is religious and religious in
much the same way though, indeed, varying in quality. It is
"inspiring," it quickens emotion and imagination, it adds
intensity to experience: therefore it is "religious." The difficulty
with such a view is that significant religion is too easily con­
fused with partial or shallow levels of experience; often with
thrills, gratifications, moods which do not claim the deeper
personal life. In the second place, there is the moralizing or
didactic view that poetry is religious when it deals explicitly
with God, Christ, Scripture, ideals or conduct, and that all
1 POETRY AND RELIGION 2
other poetry is merely secular, pretty, frivolous or even im­
moral. Such popular misconceptions rest as much upon erro­
neous views of religion as of poetry. They reappear in more
learned versions. For example, on the basis of a systematic
distinction between the natural order and the order of revela­
tion, poetry like all the arts, may be assigned to the former
and its exercise viewed therefore as relatively unimportant for
religion.
To define the relation between poetry and religion is, in­
deed, a hazardous task. Age-old cruxes in esthetic theory are
involved as well as the most recent critical discussion. Anyone
who proposes to deal with these problems must walk circum­
spectly for fear of running afoul either of those who have
special views as to religion, or those who have special views
as to esthetics. He has to thread his way delicately between
Plato and Aristotle, between Thomist and romantic,
those contemporary critics who assert the autonomy of poetry,
and those modem poets who, like many older poets, see them­
selves as seers and prophets.
We shall not here add one more definition of poetry to the
many that exist. The inadequacy of some views will appear in
the course of our discussion. It is more to the point here to
urge that austere standards be maintained in consideration of
the art, that we keep constantly in mind its greater possibilities
and achievements. Great poetry is priceless and achieved at
inestimable cost. It comes by a kind of miracle through the
convergence of innumerable favoring circumstances. What we
have constitutes an incomparable and many-sided revelation
of man. In it man comes to consciousness of himseH, his scope
and faculties and the terms of his lot. It is with poetry of this
stature that men should always be primarily concerned. In the
light of it the limitations of lesser poetry, whether "traditional"
or modem, should always be recognized.
Such due recognition, however, of the august character of
the greatest poetry does not mean indifference to other and POETRY AND RELIGION 3
lesser kinds. It rather confers an honor upon all poetry and
should make us appreciative of the innumerable more modest
forms which spring up perpetually in the varied circumstances
of man's life past and present.
For a working definition of religion we shall have in mind
our relation to the "unconditioned" or ultimate, or that which
has unconditional obligation for us, together, with our response
to it. Such a definition is, indeed, very general and highly ab­
stract. Ordinarily we shall be concerned with the relations of
poetry to our western religious tradition. But even in this
generalized form the basic relation of poetry to religion sug­
gests itself. Certainly the poetic experience like religious expe­
rience involves a relation with the "unconditioned."
Poetry is ontology, truly; it is even theology, in accord­
ance with the great saying of Boccacio. But in the sense
that it takes its birth at the mysterious sources of being
and after its own fashion reveals them by its own creative
1 movement.
But if poetry coincides with religion in this respect, as an art
it takes its own direction. The religious life involves our total
response to the unconditioned. The esthetic life moves toward
the shaping of the work of art. But of all the arts poetry, since.
it is an art of language, of the word, will often retain and sus­
tain a varied relation to religion.
We may here forecast two main theses and this will serve
as a guide in what follows: ,
( 1) Poetry and religion, the poetic and the religious ex­
perience, are profoundly and intimately related to each other
if not consubstantial, and religion requires poetry in its dis­
course.
( 2) In certain recurrent phases of culture poetry rightly
l Situation de la Poesie, by Jacques et Raissa Maritain (Paris: Desclee de
Broumer, 1938), p. 117. Santayana's way of saying this is that_ :QOetry and
re1igion are identical in essence, though they relate themselves differently to
poetry by a dramatic presentation of values and re1igion by practical Jife:
precepts and code. 4 POETRY AND RELIGION
tends to assert its own autonomy over against religion, but it
still remains deeply religious in character.
The validity and meaning of these theses will best appear if
we examine successively a number of instances and testimonies
bearing on the matter in different periods and circumstances.
We shall give attention: (1) to the origins of poetry; (2) to·
the place of poetry in the Bible and in the Christian faith; ( 3)
to a number of instances in which for one reason or another
the function of the poet has been disparaged on moral and
religious grounds; and finally, ( 4) to contemporary claims
made for the autonomy of poetry.
1. THE ORIGINS OF POETRY
We must reckon with the fact that in their beginnings poetry
and religion are indistinguishable and consubstantial. The tribal
soothsayer is the first poet, and his oracle or incantation or
curse is proffered in rhythmic verse or chant. We may take our
example from ancient Arabia where, says D. B. MacDonald,
"poetry is magical utterance, inspired by powers from the un­
seen, and the poet is, in part an adviser and admonisher, and
1 in part a hurler of magical formulae against his enemies."
The utterance of the Arabic diviners of the better type was cast
in that primitive verse which was called Saj°, literally "pigeon­
cooing." This, continues MacDonald, became later the normal
rhetorical form of language in Islam and consisted essentially
of a series of short phrases in prose-it may be with rhythm­
all rhyming together. Mohammed was "a poet of the old Arab
type, without skill of verse, and with all his being given to the
2 prophetic side of verse." In early Hebrew vaticination and
poetry we have an analogous story. The "wizards, that chirp
and mutter" ( Is. 8: 19) correspond to the Arabic diviners and
the Hebrew term corresponds. This pattern of utterance
evolved into the literary form of Hebrew poetry. Thus the poet
1 Religious Attitude and Life in Islam (Chicago: 1909), pp. 16, 17.
2 Or,. cit., pp. 16, '17. THE ORIGINS OF POETRY 5
was originally a vates and his chant a carmen (charm) to use
the corresponding Latin terms.
Recurrent impulses in recent poetry and its precursors have
exalted this idea of the poet as magical sayer and of poetry as
incantation. A French tradition from Rimbaud to St.-John
Perse with its influence on an American poet like Hart Crane,
gives illustration. Such poetry is oracular, Dionysiac and has a
religious character even though devoid of any but the most
indeterminate theological reference. To this we shall return
later.
MacDonald's characterization of what he calls "the first
feeling out of verse" in the lower cultural levels is connected
with the practical.tribal role of the shaman. We may, however,
take a cue from the insight that "poetry is praise" and propose
that the original urge of song was spontaneous celebration
and lyric impulse. We have here the alternative which re­
appears in theories of primitive art and cave painting. On the
one hand there is the instrumentalist view that early man
designed art forms to offer himself the relative security of his
own created order in a mysterious environment full of menace
and arbitrariness. Indeed, there is also the related view that
the cave paintings were magical charms against the malevolent
powers. But the alternative view is that he wrought in the
spirit of free play and delight in celebration of existence: art
is praise.
Such a view of art and song can be carried back into the
sub-human creation. Richard Cabot used to tell of an experi­
ence in the Adirondacks that drove this home upon him.
Awaking on an open porch in the woods in the earliest dawn
he heard the songs of countless birds, but also from a neighbor­
ing cottage the dove-like cooing and prattle of an infant that
had awaked before its parents. In both he recognized the
canticle of the creatures and perceived an impulse that was
not different even when articulated and orchestrated in the
most complex media of the modem arts. 6 POETRY AND RELIGION
2. POETRY IN THE BIBLE AND THE
CHRISTIAN FAITH
Let us now bring into our picture of the relations of poetry and
religion the prominent place that poetry occupies in the Jewish
and Christian Scriptures and in the liturgy and piety of Chris­
tianity.
In the earlier strata of the Old Testament we find a contin-:.
uation of the older Semitic poetry. The advance of the He­
brews, whether in poetic skill or in religious conceptions, does
not mean that the religious character of their verse is lost.
Thus it is true that the Song of Deborah is --an epic lyric, an
ode of triumph ( to use classical categories) but · it is the tri­
umph of Jahweh that is celebrated and the verse patterns are
in the tradition of the primitive Semitic soothsayer, as is even
more clear in the ancient oracles of Balaam, where the magical
character of the utterance is self-evident.
Not only the Psalter but the larger part of the prophetic and
wisdom books of the Old Testament are poetry in the formal
sense. Archeological evidence, moreover, has made it clear that
not only the basic pattern of the poetic couplet but also the
formal features of various types of Psalms, with their functions,
have their antecedents in the earlier cultic poems of pre­
Israelite Canaan. The primary role of poetry in the religion of
Israel is, however, attested not only by the number of pages
it occupies in the Scripture but by the peculiar fact that the
prose sections of the Old Testament-especially the great his­
torical sections-really depend upon the poetic core or founda­
tion.1 The prose of religion is a secondary stage. The nearest
thing that we have to a non-religious poetry in the Old Testa­
ment is the wisdom writing in those sections that have a largely
humanistic perspective especially in parts of Proverbs and in
the much later skeptical core of Ecclesiastes. We see here an
example already of how poetry at certain stages of cultural
1 This observation I owe to Professor J. C. Rylaarsdam. POETRY IN THE CHRISTIAN FAITH 7
advance and under the spur of special religious conditions
takes on an autonomous character.
The role of poetry in the formal sense in the New Testament
is also extraordinarily important and interesting. Since we have
the sayings of Jesus only in translation and with the modifica­
tions imposed upon them by tradition, we cannot be sure as
to the particular rhetorical pattern they had in Aramaic. Schol­
arly discussion of the matter is still in process. It is at least
clear that much of his teaching-apart from the parables, the
briefer aphoristic pronouncements and certain sayings in the
tradition of the scribes-had a parallelistic rhetorical character
closely related to the forms of Hebrew poetry and frequently
a strophic character, such that a large body of his most signifi­
cant utterance must assuredly be classified as poetry in the
formal sense. It supports the view that Jesus belonged to the
"charismatic" type of the Near East whose insights and utter­
ance often came, if not in ecstatic or near-ecstatic states, at
least in that kind of heightened and visionary immediacy which
inevitably took rhythmic expression. The oral transmission,
translation into Greek, and later editing have added to or trans­
formed the rhetorical patterns in various ways as can be seen
sometimes by the comparison of the sayings in Matthew and
Luke.
In the Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, we have prosodic
forms, notably in the Prologue but also in the discourse as­
signed to Jesus, which proceed out of Hellenistic rhetorical
patterns of a different character. The epistles of the New Testa­
ment · are sprinkled with quotations of early Christian doxol­
ogies and liturgical poetry and allusions to "psalms and hymns
and spiritual songs" current in the church, of which the most
notable preserved to us are the canticles of Luke. Thus the
New Testament too offers its evidence of the inseparable con­
nection of religion with poetry.
This exhibit of the relation of poetry and religion in the
Christian tradition must include in summary fashion a re-