Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Perilous Stuff: Poems of Religious Meditation

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Perilous Stuff: Poems of Religious Meditation

Article excerpt

SAINT George's Round Church (Anglican) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has a tradition of inviting academics, not necessarily Anglican, to reflect on the spiritual dimensions of their own particular subject, partly as an interdisciplinary experiment. What, in our time, do the church and the academy have to offer one another? How does the discipline of each intersect with the other'? In my own case, I spend much of my classroom time talking to students about Renaissance poems, many of them of course intensely religious or devotional, but the secular classroom often leaches away some of that intensity. However clear and comprehensive one might be about the context of the poem, or the biography of the poet, or the history of the controversy, or the tradition of the poetic conventions, it can be difficult to see why or in what way the issue matters so much, to disclose the peculiar energy and the life of the poem. The following meditations, now revised, were first offered at Saint George's during the course of four successive Sundays in Lent. (1) This new setting, involving the somber beauty and solemnity of Evensong during the Lenten season, seemed to cast new light on the poems, to allow them to speak with something of (what one imagines as) their own original authority and seriousness and weight or gravitas. The poems do not form any kind of conventional sequence or cluster, but while each has considerable merit on its own and, in fairly obvious ways, can stand alone, they also tend to comment on each other, sometimes in surprising and unpredictable ways.

Lent, of course, is a penitential season, a season of waiting, of preparation, of anxiousness--a season of spiritual peril. And while the selected poems were not written as Lenten meditations, they each cast light on a certain dimension of that spiritual peril. They are all, in their way, consolatory, though the consolations are of diverse kinds, and not all of them are very comforting or comfortable. Sometimes the only solace is the rather bleak or austere comfort of simply coming to a clearer understanding of the peril, a sharper apprehension of the nature of spiritual danger or anxiety or desolation. Most of the poems are from the English Renaissance, but two are by twentieth-century American poets, and the comparisons help to establish the timelessness of the issues, even as the cultures they issue from undergo a metamorphosis and grow, either together or apart.

My aim is not so much to explain the poems, or to chart their place in the history of ideas or of theology, or to abstract a meaning or a moral from each poem, or to mine the poem for evidence of the poet's biography or personality, or to educe a set of moral or spiritual equations such that the gloss would replace the poem and the poem itself could be discarded. Rather, I want to explore what it is like to dwell in the poem, to experience it, to feel its energies and its limitations, to get it by heart. For my ambition has less to do with reaching a set of conclusions or articulating a set of principles and more to do with submitting to a certain quality of experience--the experience of becoming possessed by the poem. Plato was right, I believe, to think of poetry as involving a kind of possession, and he was right to worry that such possession involves dangers. But allowing yourself to be possessed by a good poem also has advantages, most especially the educational advantage or opportunity to grow into an awareness of an intelligence that is wider, deeper, smarter than you are--to see the world, including the world of the spirit, in ways you could never do on your own, without such help.

BBEFORE taking up "Holy Sonnets" 14 and 7 by John Donne, I want to examine briefly a kind of paradigm of the relationship between the poet and the reader. My example involves the greatest of poets, William Shakespeare, and one of the greatest of readers, Dr. Samuel Johnson. James Boswell reports an extraordinary meeting between Johnson and his physician, Dr. …

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