BOOKS AND ARTS
30 December 2010, Review by Sebastian Barker
Off with the shackles of certitude
Faith, Hope and Poetry: theology and the poetic imaginationMalcolm Guite
Ashgate Publishing Limited, £50
Tablet bookshop price £45 Tel 01420 592974
Malcolm Guite writes as an academic priest harvesting invaluable insights in his closely reasoned study of poetry. He dislikes what he regards as the limitation of our interpretation of reality imposed on us by the Enlightenment, which, for him, demanded clarity of expression, rectitude of thought, an absolute precision of meaning. He traces this demand from Francis Bacon and Descartes through to the early Wittgenstein and a flavourless logical positivism. Instead, he celebrates and embraces ambiguity. It is obvious to him that poetry tells us a great deal more about reality than obsession with the exact. The exact, in short, is a devilish misunderstanding of the multitudinous nature of a thing. So Guite is taking us on a liberating voyage into our poetic inheritance, to escape the shackles of such certitude.
He tells his story through crystal clear reading of The Dream of the Rood, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Sir John Davies, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Milton, Coleridge, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney. In every case, his exegesis is detailed, exhaustive, even at times overcooked, but always attentive to the poetry and illuminating about it.
He sees the poetic imagination as much a part of God as of man: so it is the window through which both see each other. “If part of the Imago Dei is itself our creative imagination then we should expect the action of the Word, indwelling and redeeming fallen humanity, to begin in, and work outward through, the human imagination. If this is so then we should be able to discern the presence of that Word in the works of art which are the fruit of our imagination.” Because Guite is making a serious effort as our guide to what poetry is, it comes as no surprise to hear him say, “In offering a theology of imagination, we need to have some criteria for discerning the ways in which imagination might both lapse into idolatry and
He detects them in language and the way it is used. “Of most concern to us in making the case for poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty is the development of thought about the actual and possible range of reference of language itself.” He makes it clear how far this range of reference may reach: “Poetry may be especially fitted as a medium for helping us apprehend something of the mystery embodied in that phrase ‘the Word was made flesh’.” So language is not some sort of “given”. It is not a collection of data taken up like little bricks by the poet to build a poem. It is the Word become flesh, as in the first chapter of the gospel of St John. For Guite, therefore, language is intimately involved in the interpenetration of transcendence and immanence.
“Coleridge and Seamus Heaney”, he tells us, “are certainly the two poets whose vision most affects the shape and purpose of this volume.” Although this is true, Guite is drawing on his other sources all the time, so that the rich texture of the language he uses is heavily criss-crossed by poetry itself. But he is by no means the ventriloquist’s doll of the poetry he quotes. He brings a refreshing nicety of theology to his outlook, with the result that our experience of poetry is made new again and carried to new frontiers – the most interesting of which is poets as technicians of the sacred.
“The poetic imagination helps us to see the reality of the unseen.” This remark comes in a discussion of Milton composing poetry when blind. Because of his canny conformity to the special philosophic genius of Coleridge, Guite can without bathos refer to tracing “the full flow of his poetry back to its source in an imagination which is more than the human”. Guite uses Coleridge and Milton, along with all the others, to establish the intellectual reasonableness of his claims for poetry. “To read Paradise Lost is to be reminded again of how to read the two great works that God has left us – his Word and his world.” It would be easy to take issue with this on the grounds that Paradise Lost tells us more about politics in the time of the wars of religion than God, his Word, or his world. But that would be to miss the point of this book.
Guite is impressed by Coleridge reflecting on “the experience of having been the mind through which great works of imagination had been revealed”. And he has this to say about it. “In this reflection Coleridge found himself compelled to reject the mechanistic, clockwork cosmos of Newton, to reject the distant and detached clockmaker that passed for God with many of his contemporaries. Instead he rediscovered for himself the mysterious and suddenly present God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, the mysterious and all-sustaining Word made flesh at Bethlehem, and the life-giving Holy Spirit through whom the imaginations of poets are kindled.”
Nor does he let poets such as Thomas Hardy or Philip Larkin off the hook. He says of Larkin, “The atheist in him is surprised and silenced by the poet who emerges from the depths and takes charge of things.” In detailed analysis of their poems, he carries this point elegantly into our understanding.
He rounds off his affirmation of God and the poetic imagination with a subtle and thorough-going look at Seamus Heaney. He places him firmly in the frame of a man “entering heaven/Through the ear of a raindrop”, as in Heaney’s poem “The Rain Stick”. In doing so, he shows Heaney moving from the contemplation of the murderous to the contemplation of the marvellous.
The editing of the book is poor. Scholastic footnotes have the page number reference as “p. 000” five times. Philip Larkin becomes Phillip; books are left unitalicised; and we have such howlers as “which is our in inheritance”. There are far too many glaring editorial mistakes in such an invaluable book.
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