Magazine article Cross Currents

Suffering and Hope in the Enchanting Garb of Poetry

Magazine article Cross Currents

Suffering and Hope in the Enchanting Garb of Poetry

Article excerpt

Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry." (1) What does philosopher George Santayana mean by this statement, and how may his words, written in 1900, be significant for us today? To start with, we should keep in mind that, for Santayana, the meaning of poetry and religion has everything to do with their use and function. In certain cases, religion and poetry may prove humdrum, outmoded, or inconsequential. Even if one goes to church regularly or reads poetry frequently, these practices may, in the greater scheme of things, end up being of little consequence in one's life. They may merely "supervene upon life" in ancillary ways.

That being said, poetry and religion may have quite significant and far-reaching consequences in our life. Rather than merely "supervene" upon life, they may decisively "intervene" in it, giving us a deep sense of orientation and purpose in the world. This is poetry and religion at their best. For Santayana, then, there are at least two kinds of religion, just as there are at least two kinds of poetry. Both may penetrate our lives in deep-seated ways, or they may prove secondary or insignificant. Seen in this light, the question is not so much "What is poetry or religion?" but rather, "How do poetry and religion qualitatively function in our lives?"

In our day and age, we have much to learn from Santayana's insight. We are encouraged to avoid automatically reducing religion and poetry to "mere" religion or "mere" poetry. Although Santayana acknowledges that both may, at times, prove tired and trivial, he holds out for more noble expressions of each. In today's world, it is easy to write religion off for all of its foibles, indiscretions, and hypocrisies. But scratch the surface and one can also find individuals and communities of faith who live out their life in genuine and selfless ways. Santayana would urge us not to lose sight of these people. Furthermore, in a techno-rational world such as ours that is so focused on "hard facts" and "the bottom line," religion and poetry are often thought to be "idealistic" flourishes that have little, if anything, to do with "actual" experience. Santayana rightly challenges this view. As he points out, "actual" human experience is inextricably shaped by the ideals that guide us. Whether we know it or not, we are all oriented by ideals and myths. Santayana's wide and generous understanding of "religion" and "poetry" reminds us that our "actual" experience is always shaped by our "ideal" concerns. While neither poetry nor religion can be proved literally, both are fueled by the imagination and serve as ideally valid modes of engaging experience. Thus, as expressions of the ideal, religion and poetry are hardly inconsequential to our lives. Rather, they may serve as the very lighthouses that illuminate and guide our fundamental commitments.

Like many Victorian romantics a generation before him, Santayana saw an intimate connection between religion and poetry. (2) Santayana agrees with social critic Matthew Arnold's observation that "the strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry." Santayana would simply add here that the strongest part of our poetry is unconscious religion, or, as we might say today, unconscious "spirituality." (3) The end of Santayana's essay, "The Elements and Function of Poetry," makes the convergence between poetry and religion explicit. "Poetry raised to its highest power," he writes, "is then identical with religion grasped in its inmost truth; at their point of union both reach their utmost purity and beneficence, for then poetry loses its frivolity and ceases to demoralize, while religion surrenders its illusions and ceases to deceive." (4)

With these insights in mind, this essay explores the convergence of religion and poetry in one of the greatest works associated with both: the Book of Job. …

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