The faith of poetry and the poetry of faith

            My first book of poetry was a Puffin book of children’s verse, with a light blue cover; I enjoyed poking around in it, but I can remember very little else about it.  Poetry disappeared from my life in early adolescence, but reappeared at ‘O’ level with passages from the Prelude, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and a selection of Keats, much of which I learnt by heart for exam quotes, and which has therefore always stayed with me.  Likewise at ‘A’ level we had as a set text an anthology of contemporary poetry – Let the Poet Choose I think the book was called – in which living (well living when the book was published) poets writing in English chose two of their poems.  This will date me: it included W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, Charles Causley, R.S. Thomas (I wrote to him, and got a polite, encouraging but brief response, which I’m sad to say I can’t currently find), Vernon Scannell, Ted Hughes, amongst many others.  I loved it, and as my intellectual horizons opened up, poetry became a kind of permanent fixture in my reading habits, though I’m embarrassed to admit my reading of living poets’ work is fairly limited and obvious – Simon Armitage, Alice Oswald, Andrew Motion, a few others. 

            All the same, I think the fact that I’ve continued to read poetry – going through Milton again at the moment – means that the relationship of poetry and faith has always intrigued me, and I’ve begun to think a bit more seriously about it recently.  There are three dimensions of the relationship which I can get out the way fairly quickly.  The first is quite, simply, that there are obviously poets writing today whom we’d happily call ‘religious poets’ – Malcolm Guite would be one, Rowan Williams another (I know he probably doesn’t want to be categorized that way, but it’s hard not to see him, like Malcolm, as a priest who’s also a poet, and therefore as a ‘religious poet’ in the sense I’m intending).  These are people who comfortably inhabit the mental and imaginative world of faith, and write out of it and about it, though also about other things.  There are many examples in the past – Keble, Rosetti, Herbert.  I read all these and others.  But this phenomenon is not what interests me here.

            There’s also inescapably a sense in which the poets of the past, as well as some writing today, were Christian, so that Christian ideas and values flow through their work and it is to a considerable extent unintelligible without attending to them, even though we don’t necessarily think of these poets primarily as ‘religious poets’.  This is true of the vast majority of poets who wrote before the mid-nineteenth century or so, and of many, probably the clear majority, of those who wrote up until around the mid-twentieth century.  It simply doesn’t make sense to approach, for example, Donne, Wordsworth, Coleridge, without taking any account of their religious and spiritual convictions.  Even in those who were somewhat heterodox, the presence of Christian preoccupations and values can’t be ignored.  Tennyson, for example?  Robert Bridges, the Brownings, even Shelley and Byron to an extent.  Nor is this second dimension of the relationship what interests me here.

            The third dimension approaches much more closely to what I want to explore.  That is the conceptual overlap between poetry and theology, what I tentatively call the ‘metaphysical landscape’ (with a nod to Hopkins’s inscape) of much poetry.  Poetry offers transcendent perspectives, opening up insights or views that take us outside the specificity of one personal experience.  These insights may or may not be dependent upon an overarching metaphysical system, and they may not aim even to articulate metaphysical concepts as such, but sometimes they do, perhaps even conceiving of an alternative mythology to that of conventional religious belief – Hughes’s Crow is a particularly clear example.  There’s obviously a long list of words and images that have an affinity with theological ideas – creation, fall, inspiration, redemption, sacrifice, offering, presence, and so on – because they are in some sense bearers of metaphysical ideas.  Ted Walker’s Easter Poem (for John Cotton) is a good example of what I’m describing, even though the theological idea articulated here is essentially a-theistic, almost nihilistic and certainly parasitic on conventional Christian language.

            Though this third phenomenon helps to suggest why so many theologians find poetry to be so generative and productive of insight – and I’m well aware that I’ve not even attempted the complex, separate task of actually trying to define what poetry is – once again it’s not actually what I have in mind as I try to think more about faith and poetry.  My hunch – I can’t put it yet more strongly than that – is that the affinity between poetry and faith doesn’t hang solely on what poetry (in the various forms in which people read it) is itself and itself seeks to do, but rather on what theology and faith are.  One of the books that had a great impact on me when I was reading for my Theology degree was Janet Soskice’s Metaphor and Religious Language (1985).  I haven’t read it for years, and I’m fearful of doing it an injustice, but one of my main, remembered ‘takeaways’ from it was the sense in which almost all human attempts to define or describe the realm of being, even including science, ultimately entail resort to terms that are irredeemably metaphorical.  Theologians have always been aware of this, because the descriptions they offer of the substance of faith concern ‘things unseen’, and therefore one of the primary tasks of the theologian is to discipline and refine the use of concepts in faith to try to protect against their illegitimate or over-restrictive use.  Everyone knows the word ‘father’ used of God is a metaphor; how do we protect and refine the ancient doctrine of the fatherhood of God to prevent it becoming, for example, a justification for patriarchy? 

            But if, as Soskice taught me to see, the same challenge exists in all our use of language, then faith is not so much a separate, specialized category of knowledge – in fact it’s not really knowledge in a reductive sense, i.e. knowledge of ‘things’ – as a way of seeing the world in continuity with the ways others see the world.  In order to do that, people of religious conviction interrogate their own experience using language which reaches beyond the specific and limited to embrace a metaphysical horizon.  Faith is a sort of poetry of human experience.  The moment we try to bring factitious language to bear on it, we miss the point of it.  One of the problems with the ‘New Atheism’, for example, is that when I say ‘God exists’ I can’t possibly mean that God exists in quite the same sense that I can say the chair I’m sitting on exists.  The chair has being, a presence in the world of time and space; I can measure it, study its constituent parts, analyse its chemical composition.  God is above and beyond being; I simply can’t know he exists except through faith.  When we start to use language about theology with the same presumed precision that we might attempt in, for example, the analysis of a chair, we risk going seriously awry from the off.  Likewise, I can’t measure and define the quantity of love or suffering.  So the language I use about love and suffering takes me beyond the realm of physical measurement and analysis.  Let’s say faith and theology make a similar move to poetry, from human experience to ultimate meaning.

            But that puts human faith in the position of attempting to express the ultimately ineffable.  No matter how much I try to describe what I experience and believe, in the end, unless I am simply and deliberately describing an interior, psychological state alone, then I am trying to capture something in words that constantly fall short of what I want to say. 

            That’s not to say that there isn’t a logic and discipline in theology.  This requires a much longer post – a book or five or six – but in Christian theology, faith is rooted in a knowledge of God derived from the sources of Scripture, tradition (i.e. the experience of the ages), and faith-inspired reason.  The systematic methodology of theology draws on these, and compares and interrogates different attempts to clarify their meaning.  The doctrine of the Church acquires authority from the regard in which successive generations hold it, but it is never completely frozen or static.  Yet we do again and again come back to the basic point that the language of faith ultimately seeks to express something beyond definitive expression.  How do we know, then, that it is of any use at all?  Because it is language of faith – its premises are not based on empirical observation, but on the divinely-inspired imagination, so that the presupposition of faith is that God is present in all we attempt to do and say.  My guides here are, at least in the English tradition, Coleridge and Newman.  With Coleridge I can say, for example, “in all finite quantity, there is an infinite, in all measures of time an eternal; that the latter are the basis, the substance, of the former; and that, as we truly are only as far as God is with us, so neither can we truly possess, that is, enjoy our being or any other real good, but by living in the sense of His holy presence”.  (Aids to Reflection)  Rahner for one would have agreed.

            So for me all theological language peters out over the horizon of mystery.  That gives it a plastic capacity, a sense that if I define things in faith too sharply, I risk emptying them of meaning; there is always an ‘overplus’, something more to be said in all our attempts religiously to say anything.  And that again is why I’m much more interested in the poetic character of theological language, including the language of faith itself, than I am in any pretence it has to rational precision. 

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