Poetry: a game that can offer a lifeline

A detail from The Dream of the Poet Or, the Kiss of the Muse (1859-60) by Cézanne

Faith in Poetry
by Michael D Hurley, Bloomsbury, 240pp, £70

When GK Chesterton wrote a biography of William Blake for the Men of Letters series in 1910, he opened it with the following paradox: “All the biggest events of Blake’s life would have happened before he was born.” Going a step further, he said that Blake would have agreed. “If Blake wrote the life of Blake it would not begin with any business about his birth or parentage … it would have begun with a great deal about the giant Albion … and the lions that walked in their golden innocence before God.”

Chesterton makes the case that both Blake’s religious sensitivities and his poetic programme grew out of his faith in what “happened before he was born”, in the existential dramas recorded in the Old and New Testaments.

Barring some important exceptions (like Chesterton), much of 20th-century literary criticism subordinated the faith and religious experiences of writers to sociological and political paradigms, theories and concerns – thus no longer treating poets as whole persons. Moreover, criticism touching on faith’s role and influence often proposed that emerging modern societies experienced the twilight of God’s presence. J Hillis Miller’s influential The Disappearance of God (1963) especially helped augment this trend of identifying “the withdrawal of God from the world” as a fundamental theme in Victorian and early 20th-century poetry.

However, especially in the last three decades, literary scholars, theologians and historians of religion, among others, are increasingly qualifying the idea that modernity birthed a process of near totalising secularisation. In what is now often termed our “post-secular age”, thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Rowan Williams and Jean-Luc Marion show that a sense of the sacred did not withdraw from culture as radically as has been assumed. Among such recent scholarly recoveries concerning the interplay between literature and theology, Hurley’s Faith in Poetry: Verse Style as a Mode of Religious Belief is a significant contribution.

The book re-evaluates Miller’s claim that 19th-century poetry mainly presents a disappearing (or already absent) God. Hurley notes that whereas “Miller examine[d] five writers who purportedly represent ‘the culmination of a long process of secularisation’, his own book ‘evaluates five writers who complicate and in some respects confute our understanding of that ‘process’.”

Focusing on Blake, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Gerard manley Hopkins and TS Eliot, Hurley explores intersections between faith and the development of poetic form throughout the 19th century. He argues that the verse styles of these five poets demonstrate dynamic commitment to religious faith.

In Hurley’s discussion of Rossetti, for example, he traces how her Tractarianism helped inform her poetic aesthetics. Rossetti’s readings of Tractarian devotional poetry, he points out, convinced her that poetry was “the form of language … most suited to the expression of religious devotion and yearning.”

However, Faith in Poetry aspires to more than just accounting for how faith informs the imagination. Hurley is equally concerned with arguing that poetry not only expresses faith but also enables it, testifying to the poet’s belief that poetry can say and do what “could not otherwise be said and done”.

So what does poetry do? It demands that its religious practitioners be accountable to both their craft and “the transcendent truths of their God”. Hurley argues that, by necessity, Blake et al further engaged with the depths of their own Christian positions by honing their respective verse styles. Poetry, he says, is naturally akin to a Christian worldview since it inclines towards incarnation. Quoting Jacques Maritain, Hurley explains that verse has an “incarnational character”, a “capacity to breathe life into thought” since it renders the metaphysical concrete. Hurley’s discussion of Blake especially gets this point across.

From his prosody to his engravings, from his poetics to his diversified and often idiosyncratic punctuation, Blake demonstrates a mind hard at play. Hurley notes that Blake’s unique adaptations of traditional poetic forms, such as nursery rhymes, epics and epigrams, are meant to “pique” and “challenge” readers to engage in re-thinking our understanding of what poetry is and does. Blake’s poetic project, Hurley suggests, involves a ruthlessly honest recording and processing of the work of “self-debating”, of examining one’s religious position through poetic experimentation.

Like Chesterton, Hurley treats poets as whole persons who understand poetry as a vehicle for grace, a lifeline and a game (with soteriological stakes). He carefully attends to the ways in which tradition, religious culture and poetry’s power to conceive reality serve as profound resources for living an examined life. This is part of what makes Faith in Poetry such an engaging and striking read. It blends rigorous and careful scholarship with a thoughtful treatment of religious poets as those who dare to believe in God and poetry – that creative rite which, as Eliot pronounced, lets us, “now and then, penetrate into another country”.

Rebekah Lamb is an Étienne Gilson post-doctoral fellow at the University of St. Michael’s College, in the University of Toronto, and an adjunct professor of literature at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College (Barry’s Bay, ON)