What is Christian Poetry?
As a writer and a believer I find few people asking this question, yet it needs asking. Reading Donald Davie’s the New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, one might assume that for Mr. Davie deciding which poets and poems are Christian is easier than picking ripe tomatoes. He devotes most of his space to great poems and hymns that have under girded the faithful for centuries, the work of Herbert, Vaughn, Watts, Cowper and the Wesley’s. Yet, these choices mask the difficulty of the question, particularly as faced by a contemporary poet who considers him or herself a Christian. Must my work also include direct invocations? And what poets should one read? What poems from the English-American tradition, apart from the no- brainers mentioned above, would be classifiable as Christian? How do you classify, for example,” Dover Beach”? Davie doesn’t include it, but isn’t Arnold’s Victorian-progress-is-whipping-up-on-the-faith tone grounds for raising a question about such a classification? Browning writes about bishops and friars, but Bishop Blougram and Fra Lippo Lippi aren’t included. The more difficult aspects of the question center on guidelines for a Christian ars poetica. Are there rules a Christian poet should abide by to feel that his work is pleasing to God? Can I write about strip joints? Should a Christian poet ponder homosexuality as a theme? Last, the quaestio difficillima adroitly handled by that Dr. Spock of Theology, Thomas Aquinas: how can the poet be sure his work lifts up, that it doesn’t bring the reader down? As we try to define Christian poetry, the usual literary resources, those Michael Jordan’s of the world of theory, will offer little help. Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Greimas, Kristevea, Jakobson, Fish, de Mann–all raise questions that will keep theory junkies salivating for decades, but ultimately, to a contemporary Christian poet, such questions may be unimportant. For that poet the question may simple be: is my work pleasing to God?
Davie sets forth two specific points for inclusion in his anthology: poems were chosen because they deal with Christian doctrine; others were chosen because they treat the Biblical narrative in such a way as to enlighten doctrine. Once these requirements are in place, the choosing becomes easier and more painful, at once. These exclude most of Dylan Thomas–whose work, replete with Christian symbolism–sheds no light on doctrine. They leave out all of Shakespeare and Auden. And the one poem I thought would be the sine qua non for modern Christian poetry, “The Four Quartets”, is omitted. Davies’s justification for such stringent criteria is interesting. Simply put, without these tight controls the entire corpus of pre-modern English poetry prior to Hardy would have to be allowed admittance on the grounds that all poets from Chaucer to Hardy wrote in a Christian society in which they considered themselves active participants. True, some artists took liberties. After Marvell penned “To His Coy Mistress” may we assume, following Davies’s lead, that the poet realized his sin, repented and promised God not to attempt to seduce anyone else via a poetic syllogism? Probably not, since that would assume that all poets from the pre-modern era were devout. What Davie is saying is that these poets lived in a society that rarely questioned the principles it stood upon. Should we, as believers and readers of poetry, consider “Mistress” sinful? Can we admire its wit, marvel at its gallant levity and still adjudge it to embody sinful suggestions? Elliot thought it one of the best and we know the kind of moral strictures he placed upon himself.
At this point many readers are probably wincing. The word “sophistication” or the lack thereof, is circling round inside their heads with all the viciousness this word can entail. If we have learned anything in academia in the last hundred years it is this: do not presume to judge. Must we be so tacky? How would you feel telling your friend who teaches freshman Comp. Lit. next door that you feel uncomfortable teaching “Mistress” because you fear the poem might nudge some hitherto timid freshman to go right out and seduce via iambic tetrameter? Do we even care about such things? Are we presenting literature in a moral vacuum–as many current critics de facto advocate–because we are afraid of losing our status, our credibility, and our jobs?
The best of the PIG series (Politically Incorrect Guides—published by Regnery) is Elizabeth Kantor’s guide to English literature. Kantor is a writer for human events who was obviously outraged enough at what she had to put up with to get the Ph D. that she’s clearly out to settle some scores and let the world know what’s wrong in the teaching of English Lit. In sum: Christian poets aren’t recognized as such. Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, all the way down to the nineteenth century when Shelly enters the play, poets are Christian. Did you know about Chaucer’s religious poetry? No, because your high school or college teacher was too busy telling you about the bawdy doings of the Wife of Bath. Did that teacher point out to you that the reason all those people were gathered in that inn at Southwark was religious? They were on a pilgrimage; Chaucer tells us that, but no one pays much attention to it.
Thus Mr. Davies guide to Christian poetry should be much more inclusive. Instead of the few, but choice pieces he has scrupulously chosen, he should have included almost all of the seventeenth century, goodly portions of Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Isn’t it sad as we reflect on it that most of our early poets have been so misrepresented by the academy?