Intersections: The Poetry of Religious Experience

By Mahoney, John L. | The Catholic World, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

Intersections: The Poetry of Religious Experience


Mahoney, John L., The Catholic World


It may be that the subject requires no elaborate discussion. Werent's the origins of the great Greek tragedies--with their rare blending of music, dance, and poetry--ultimately religious, part of celebrations honoring the god Dionysius? Haven't the earliest prayers and stories of the Bible taken a poetic form, finding in language and imagery a way to translate the untranslatable, to articulate the heart's deepest desires? The Psalmist cries, "As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God." Or he expresses his deepest love for the "Lord, my strength ... my rock and my fortress, and my deliverer." Or still again he takes comfort, knowing that "Even though I walk in the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." And Jesus in the parables uses story to teach a literal-minded, hard-hearted generation: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field" or "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field."

The larger question perhaps relates to the compatibility or companionability of poetry and religious experience. To what extent do they intersect or collaborate? When does one so dominate the other as to rob it of its integrity? What is it that accounts for the abundance of simply bad religious poems? Should the poet and priest, poetry and theology simply go their separate ways?

There are, of course, poets and believers who have recognized problems and raised objections. Samuel Johnson, a Church of England man and a major literary figure, contended in a famous passage in his Life of Edmund Waller that "the ideas of Christian theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction and too majestic for ornaments." And William Wordsworth, lover of nature and among the greatest of the British Romantic poets, while finding an "affinity between religion and poetry," nevertheless contends "that no poetry has been more subject to distortion, than that species the argument and scope of which is religious; and no lovers or art, have gone further astray than the pious and the devout." Even T.S. Eliot, whose Four Quartets strike many readers as among major works of religious art, early on expresses a pronounced, although a different, reservation. "The religious poet," he says, "is not a poet who is treating the whole subject matter of poetry in a religious spirit, but a poet who is dealing with a confined part of the subject matter: who is leaving out what men consider their major passions and thereby confessing their ignorance of them."

At the same time there are many eloquent tributes to poetry's religious power. There is Sir Philip Sidney's powerfully didactic passage in his oft-quoted Renaissance apologia, the 1595 Apology for Poetry, with its combining of classical and Christian. Citing Aristotle as his authority, he describes poetry as "an art of imitation ... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; with this end, to teach and delight." His major examples, "both in antiquity and excellence, were they that did imitate the inconceivable excellencies of God--the Psalms of David, Solomon's Song of Songs, others." And Percy Bysshe Shelley, in the Romantic rhetoric of his 1821 Defense of Poetry, broadens the vocation of poet to include all those "who bring into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and true, that partial apprehension of the invisible world which is called religion."

With proper respect for the great canonical statements--pace Harold Bloom--I've always been partial to some of the axioms articulated by the modern American poet Richard Eberhart at the 1968 meeting of the Modern Language Association of America. "Poetry," he says in one, "orders our imaginings!" And in another, "Poetry makes the spiritual real. It erects value and substantive meaning." Making the spiritual real, erecting value; these are strong descriptions of the intersections of poetry and religion or religious faith, or, to continue our terminology, religious experience. …

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