Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination
Deborah C. Bowen is Professor Emerita of English at Redeemer University.
David Lyle Jeffrey’s voice has been loud and clear now for upwards of 40 years, telling the story of what he describes as “the magnificent fruitfulness of Holy Scripture in the work of English poets” (vii). His related concern to counter a growing lack of biblical literacy in contemporary culture has propelled his scholarship at least since his magisterial A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (William B. Eerdmans, 1992) and subsequent monograph People of the Book: Christian Identity and Literary Culture (William B. Eerdmans, 1996). In his latest collection of essays, Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination, which covers poetic texts from Caedmon in the eighth century to Richard Wilbur in the twenty-first, Jeffrey reiterates that concern, warning that “without intellectually accountable access to the Greater Book, very many lesser, yet still very great, expressions of truth may go without understanding—unread and unreprinted” (218). He makes the argument not only that Scripture in both story and idiom has powerfully fired the English poetic imagination for centuries, even “independently of prevalent religious authority” (vii), but also that a turn from this Book could irredeemably diminish “the residual authority of our fragile discipline [of English] and indeed our wider culture” (218).
Jeffrey brings together here 12 of his essays on English poetry, some new to this collection, others revised from previous publications dating as far back as 1975. Readers will be grateful to have collected in one place essays from a variety of books (‘Lighting Up the Terrain’: The Poetry of Margaret Avison [edited by David A. Kent, ECW Press, 1987]; The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries: From the Early Church to John Paul II [edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, and Stephen R. Spencer, Brazos Press, 2007]; Translation That Openeth the Window: Reflections on the History and Legacy of the King James Bible [Society of Biblical Literature, 2009]) and journals (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Franciscan Studies, Christianity and Literature, First Things), and to find included a couple of previously unpublished essays. Those in Part I of the collection focus on medieval poetry: Bonaventure’s helpful theorizing for medieval theatre; Dante and Chaucer contrasted in their relationship to Scripture; Chaucer’s reframing of Ovid in The Canterbury Tales; and the misunderstood concept of courtly love. The chapters of Part II turn to the relationship of Scripture to poetic imagination from the Reformation to the present: Donne and Herbert; the King James Bible; (a speedy chronological skate to) form in modern poetry; Margaret Avison’s conversion poems; Richard Wilbur’s call to wonder; and fatherly love in poems by Anthony Hecht and Gjertrud Schnackenberg.
This grand sweep of 13 centuries offers Jeffrey’s hallmark corrective to any Protestant prejudice that Scripture becomes important for literature—and indeed for the wider culture—only after the Reformation. Of course collecting together essays that originally appeared in quite different contexts is always a risky process, since any attempt to find a unified thesis may falter over different foci. There are points in this collection where the avowed purpose of the volume, to explore “an attunement of the vernacular English poetic imagination to biblical poetics as a wellspring of inspiration” (xii), and so to create a “brief anthology of English-speaking poets responding to the music of divine speech in Holy Writ” (14), may appear to take rather a back seat to the more immediate concerns of individual chapters. But the trees in these chapters are so verdant that it is easy to forgive an occasional loss of sight of the all-encompassing wood.
For my money, one of the most valuable chapters here is the first, a new one, entitled “Poetry and the Voice of God.” Jeffrey argues in his Preface that “the collective ‘voice’ of our poetic tradition in English discloses a mode of imagination and creativity either inadvertently or advertently in dialogue with a precedent Voice” (xii). In this first chapter, he presents a powerful argument for poetry in Scripture as the voice of God when God is speaking to the weightiest of issues, proposing that God is best understood as “the originary Poet—the One who writes the world” (10), so that “how he speaks, not just what he says, becomes an important measure of who he is” (2). Initially looking at examples from Isaiah, Jeffrey sets out to show how in Biblical poetry “something of the divine nature itself [is] projected by the divine Voice” (5), in “rhetorical sublimity” (3), in majesty and authority, and even in anger. Jesus in the New Testament, too, speaks “poetic discourse in discussing theological truth,” knowing that “poetic imagination breaks through the barrier of unreflective thinking” (7); sometimes the only way Jesus can teach deeper truth is through poetry. It is vintage Jeffrey to lament the way in which, in contemporary Christianity, “the fashionable imposition of culturally chic paraphrases has deadened many an ear to the actual rhetorical manner of divine self-disclosure, which is seldom colloquial” (11). Challenging particularly the theologians among his readers, Jeffrey declares that “one of the most appropriate routes to a competent biblical theology may require us to get out of our prosy habits of mind and, at least occasionally, rise up and into the poetry of God” (12). He alerts us to expect a subsequent volume from him that will more closely consider divine poetry by means of literary analysis, but prepares us in this volume for a series of reflections on the way English poets have offered a response to Scripture’s poetry in an “ongoing antiphonal” (14).
Part I, then, opens with a reflection on medieval poetry and the Bible, from Caedmon’s Anglo-Saxon creation hymn (in which one of the names for God is “scop,” or “poet”) through a subsequently “vigorous tradition of poetic paraphrase” of Scripture to salvation stories presented in the fourteenth century as theatre—though in these folk-plays, Jeffrey nicely concedes, there was “considerable risk to theological precision” alongside their accessibility in giving insight into theological truth (17-18). It is perhaps surprising that, in looking at St Francis’s nativity play as a first expression of this kind of theatre, Jeffrey speaks so positively about the medieval Franciscans’ “passionate determination to harness popular culture as a medium for communicating the gospel” (24), given how negative he seems to be about twentieth- and twenty-first-century Christians trying to do the same sort of thing. Be that as it may, Jeffrey goes on to offer an illuminating comparison of Dante and Chaucer, “two of the greatest exemplars of the poetic imagination in all of Western culture” (18), in their drawing on the Sermon on the Mount. His argument may be for some readers contentious: that whereas Chaucer in England looks directly to Scripture for his authority and the formation of his literary imagination in the pursuit of personal and social action, Dante a century earlier in mainland Europe is more concerned for mystical askesis, and rather than quoting from Scripture itself is more often drawing on church liturgy and the scholastic theology he would have acquired through patristic reading.
In the following chapter, Jeffrey turns to Chaucer again to show how he uses the Bible as a lens through which to read other texts, including pagan texts like those of Ovid, to whose “inadequate” conclusions the English author offers biblical remedies in the narrative of his Parson. Having given many examples of the way Chaucer also uses the misreading of Scripture ironically, Jeffrey in the next chapter offers an enlightening excursus into irony and misreading more broadly. Pointing out that the adultery of a knight with the wife of his lord was in the Middle Ages seen as a form of treason, he contends that the “courtly love” trope has only since the nineteenth century been understood as a romantic notion, whereas in fact it was largely a medieval literary convention and “a vehicle for social satire” (86). Jeffrey compares this misreading with Henry VIII’s relationship to the Bible, which led Henry as a deliberate misreader of Scripture to attempt to edit out passages that might convict him of sin: “Living like Henry VIII (or Hugh Hefner) has become a kind of archetypal modernist fantasy that has eclipsed in our social discourse most of the spiritual capital by which marriage was understood by our Christian forebears to be integral to our pursuit of the common good” (100).
In Part II, Jeffrey turns to English poetic texts since the Reformation. He makes two key points in his introductory pages here. First,
What the classical humanist strove for in his students was a fresh encounter with an ancient text, classical or biblical. But we should not fail to recognize that the revolutionary literary encounters with texts of the Bible that mark the Reformers’ break with the paradigms of their time owe greatly to their rigorous philological training and close reading of the classical texts, chiefly poetry. (103)
And second, in tracing a path from the Reformation humanists to contemporary modernity, we also trace “the emergence of the self as authority and arbiter of moral obligation,” and thus we see the Bible become “an aesthetic rather than a spiritual touchstone” (106). The pace of this shift was, however, slowed by “the enormous appeal of the KJV Bible, the most influential translation of Scripture into any European vernacular” (107), so much so that by the nineteenth century “its cadences were habitual not only among poets but in the work of novelists, playwrights, and politicians” (108).
The first main chapter in this section is a lovely comparison of the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert, Donne flamboyant and extroverted, Herbert initially aloof and then marked by a profound humility, but both men “deeply Augustinian, catholic rather than Catholic or Protestant,” and offering necessary and complementary expressions of Christian spiritual life (130). The new chapter on the King James Bible and its influence on English poets briefly considers the poetry of Richard Wilbur (Episcopalian) and Anthony Hecht (Jewish) in the twentieth century, and then takes us on a speedy pilgrimage through many of the best-known writers, Christian or not, in the intervening centuries. Jeffrey considers the power of the KJV, particularly for poets, to reside in large part in the fact that it was intended to be read aloud: “there is nothing yet like unto the KJV for a translation that sounds like the voice of God” (146). This is indeed the confession of a true believer.
At this point, a niggle. It is true that in his consideration of the cultural authority of the KJV, Jeffrey gives a paragraph rather than just a sentence or two to Swift, Blake, and Coleridge, and in the following chapter a page-and-a-half to Hopkins; it is also true that he has written about several nineteenth-century poets elsewhere (for instance, Coleridge and Arnold in People of the Book). And of course he must be granted both limits and preferences, particularly given the constraints of a collected volume. Nevertheless, in an ideal world we might have wished somewhere in this collection for a fuller treatment of at least a couple of poets of the nineteenth century—nary a mention here of Wordsworth, Tennyson, Rossetti, Barrett Browning, or Hardy, to name just a few in whose poetry the influence of the Bible is surely complex and profound. But in this collection we move on from the “habitual music” of the KJV to the formal conclusions of modern poetry with less than we might hope for in between.
However, what Jeffrey proposes in his brief chapter on formal conclusions (an updated extract from a longer essay published in 1975) is typically bold: that a biblical telos enables poetry with significant endings, whereas a turn away from any sense of telos disables poetic meaning. Of course this proposition must be read in relation to Frank Kermode’s thesis in his now-canonical book The Sense of an Ending (1967), where he argued that we impose a coherent pattern upon our own stories as we aim to make sense of life, and that this patterning, inevitably evident in all of our literature, is structural rather than ontological. Jeffrey’s implicit response is that it is only when the personal is ontologically understood as relational rather than solipsistic and individualistic that the possibility for a “viable public vision” (155) is also communicable; as words within the Word, a good poem “provokes not merely private experience but also shared memory” (157).
Jeffrey’s three subsequent chapters on contemporary poetry all focus on North American poets. The chapter on the spiritual wisdom of the too-little-known Canadian poet Margaret Avison is evidence of what he has just described in poetry as “a means of discovery, restoring words to form” (157), as Avison herself moves from the isolation of solipsism to a community of understanding through her conversion experience in reading John’s gospel. Describing Avison’s post-conversion poetry as “a species of prayer” (176), Jeffrey aligns her with Herbert and Hopkins in the English meditative tradition. What he writes in his lovely chapter about Richard Wilbur is similarly encomiastic: Jeffrey considers this gentle New Englander in his wisdom to be comparable to poets like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. Jeffrey describes Wilbur as uniquely characterized by “a deep contentment” (181), a poet of “whimsical self-effacement and gratitude” (184), whose “wonder, crafted into art, is a kind of worship, often a hymn of thanksgiving” (182). He turns in his final chapter to look at contemporary literature through the particular lens of fatherhood, proposing that “Scripture provides us poetry and poetic imagination whereby we can envision something so culturally counterintuitive as a positive view of fathers” (197). He enlists two poems here, by Anthony Hecht and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, as evidence that “in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty” (a quote from the liner notes of Phil Ochs’s 1967 album, Pleasures of the Harbor), and that good art can point us to “the deep echo in beauty…of the love of our heavenly Father” (203). In this final section of the book, I would also have liked to see at least mention of the poetry of such giants as Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill, and perhaps some further exploration of the echoes of Scripture in a few obviously “secular” poets, but the limits of a collection of this kind are inevitable.
In any case, by the time we reach the Epilogue, it is abundantly clear why Jeffrey is anxious as he considers the “fragile future of our common Book.” As he has written elsewhere, he fears that “formal literary study, in its pretensions to be a substitute for religion, has lost sight of the common good and become incoherent” (214), and he sees this as parallel to the history of institutional Christianity itself, in its “loss of any authority sufficiently transcendent to command a common allegiance” (215). Believing as he does in “the power of literature to enable our will to truth” (218), it is significant for the readership of this journal that Jeffrey argues that confessional schools have a particular cultural responsibility to “teach premodern literature in such a way as to preserve its intelligibility”(216), and to locate literature in an appreciation of a Christian community across time. After all, argues Jeffrey, “People of the Book…are obliged to embrace their responsibility to community more readily than others” (218); consequently, we must work to preserve not only the literature of the past but also an understanding of its history and, above all, intelligent access to the Greater Book itself, on whose stories, idioms, and styles our Western culture has so long depended. In this collection, Jeffrey’s writing is everywhere incisive, often profound, and sometimes wickedly humorous. As a result, Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination will be of interest not only to literary scholars and to medievalists in particular, but also to those in theology, philosophy, and cultural studies, as well as to general Christian readers who want to be reminded afresh of the power and significance of their scriptural heritage.