Faith, Hope and Poetry

When I tell people that I teach ‘Imaginative and Literary Apologetics’ I am often met with a non-plussed look.

Some people are simply unfamiliar with the term ‘Apologetics’. They presume it must have something to do with saying sorry for Christianity – when, of course, it actually means giving reasons why Christianity can be considered credible.

And those people who are familiar with the term ‘Apologetics’ often assume it has just one dimension: that it’s all about giving reasons for Christianity’s credibility by showing the rationality of its claims to truth. But ‘Apologetics’ means more than that, – and for good reason. To concentrate solely on the ‘truth claims’ of Christianity runs the risk of turning the faith into a mere system of thought, a set of reasonable propositions to which its adherents intellectually grant assent.

Of course, belief in Christianity does include assent to certain propositions, and those propositions need to be grappled with by our intellects working logically and rigorously. But Christianity is more than a set of propositions. It’s not just something that’s true, it’s also something that’s good and beautiful. There are moral and artistic dimensions to Christian faith as well as philosophical dimensions. If apologists are to show how Christianity is fully credible, it needs to be demonstrated as the answer to ethical needs and aesthetic desires as well as to intellectual enquiries.

These three dimensions – the ethical, the aesthetic, and the intellectual – can’t be treated in hermetically sealed compartments when it comes to Apologetics. Indeed, part of the credibility of the faith resides in the fact there is connection and overlap and interinanimation between these three areas; the Christian life is an organic and integral whole. However, for the sake of clarity we can usefully divide Apologetics into the rational, the moral, and the artistic.

Imaginative Apologetics is concerned chiefly with the third approach, the way that the artistic imagination can provide a vision of Christianity’s beauty, – the variety, coherence, balance, proportion, depth, resonance, luminosity, and sheer compelling attractiveness of the Christian understanding of reality. Imaginative Apologetics does this through every kind of artistic medium (painting, sculpture, music, architecture, dance, etc). The kind that I focus on in my own work is literature, the written word, whether it be in fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.

FHaPLiterary Apologetics has a strong and developing literature of its own. A prominent work in the field, which I think should be even better known, is Malcolm Guite’s Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. It appeared in hardback in 2010, sold well, and was issued in paperback in 2012. I have returned to it repeatedly over the last five years. Not all books do you want to read more than once, but this, for me, is a keeper. And so in the rest of this post I will review Guite’s own approach to the poetic imagination, as I believe it introduces the main concerns of the Literary Apologist winsomely and tellingly.

Guite (rhymes with ‘sight’) teaches at the University of Cambridge, where he is also Anglican chaplain at Girton College. In addition, he is a prominent British poet, author of Sounding the Seasons and The Singing Bowl. Guite knows, then, whereof he speaks – the intersection of the academy and the church with the exercise of the literary imagination.

The front cover of Faith, Hope and Poetry features a picture of another intersection: a rain-drop nestling at the point where three green leaves meet on the stem of a plant. It’s a beautifully appropriate visual representation of Guite’s thesis concerning the ways in which that delicate but life-giving thing, the imagination, may somehow connect with, or receive intimations of, the holy and triune God.

Moreover, this trembling water-drop is to be found again on numerous pages within the book itself. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who more than anyone provides Guite’s epistemological cornerstone, remembered as a child being ‘struck with admiration at beholding the cope of heaven as imaged in a dew-drop’, a vision which in due course helped inspire Dylan Thomas’s glimpse of ‘the round Zion of the water bead’ (206), which in turn flowed into Seamus Heaney’s magnificent poem, ‘Rain Stick’.

Guite analyses ‘Rain Stick’ in his introductory chapter and it sets the keynote for his major theme, which is transfiguration. One thing can become another thing, or can be fed with life from another source, lit with light from a world elsewhere. As Christ on Mount Tabor burned with a brightness like that of the noonday sun, so, in great literature, the things of earth can be transformed with a heavenly radiance. Dry seeds falling through a cactus stalk can suddenly sound like ‘a sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves’, in Heaney’s phrase, and even Holy Scripture itself, too often dulled by the film of familiarity, can be recharged with an arresting immediacy: “‘The eye of a needle’ in Christ’s saying becomes in this poem, in a strange and beautiful conflation of images, ‘the ear of a raindrop’” (20).

And those dry seeds transformed into raindrops become a leitmotif running river-like through all eight chapters, – from the streams of living water gushing from Christ’s side in the Anglo-Saxon masterpiece, The Dream of the Rood, through to ‘Alph, the sacred river’ of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, and then on and down to the deathly but somehow still holy Lethe in the poems of sceptics such as Hardy and Larkin, before rising up again triumphantly into the baptismal Jordan of Heaney’s triptych, ‘Seeing Things’. En route, we have also plunged into Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and Herbert, as well as some less well-known figures such as Sir John Davies and the contemporary poet, Geoffrey Hill. By the close of the volume, you feel that you have touched both ends of English poetry and a great deal in between, but all with a lightness and a liveliness that saves it from becoming a slog.

Guite’s overall aim is to help heal the breach between reason and imagination which he argues has plagued western minds for well over three hundred years. He traces the origin of this breach, at least symbolically, to the work of one Thomas Sprat who, in 1667, wrote a history of the Royal Society whose formation Guite sees as central to the development of English life and thought in and through the Enlightenment, ‘and the Royal Society took a clear stand against poetry and the poetic imagination as ways of coming at truth’ (3). Sprat’s work was not just a history but really a manifesto of the Royal Society and in it he urged his readers ‘to separate the knowledge of Nature from the colours of Rhetoric, the devices of Fancy or the delightful deceits of Fables’ (3). Sprat demanded

a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness, bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of the artisans, countrymen and merchants before that of wits and scholars (3-4).

The result of this approach was a kind of cultural apartheid in which the realm of public and ‘objective’ truth was to be the exclusive terrain of a narrowly conceived reason – analytic, reductive, atomizing – while the faculties of imagination and intuition, those very faculties which alone were capable of interpreting and synthesizing atomized data, were banished to a private and supposedly ‘subjective’ arena.

But this is a false dichotomy, for ‘imagination informs reason and is in turn informed by it’ (15); ‘engineers can make use of imaginary numbers to construct real bridges’ (57); and ‘the imagination, far from being a merely subjective realm of fantasy, is, in fact, an essential instrument with which we grasp the truth’ (145).

The poetic imagination has this truth-bearing capacity because it is part of that human nature which has been made in the image of God, – a God whose divine act of poesis made the world and us too. ‘If our poetry is made of words about things, God’s poetry is made of the very things themselves’ (140). The Logos who created the cosmos created our very ability to understand the cosmos, and we understand His works not just in their mathematical plainness, but also in their interrelated richness. True, that richness may not be easily expressed in a logarithm, but mercifully we need not live our whole lives by means of numbers. We have words too, which when handled by great poets turn out to be capacious enough to carry some of the ambiguities and contradictions of experience, even to bear something of a transcendent freight. For Coleridge, poetry ‘is part of the evidence that all things are, at least potentially, luminous with the light of God’ (243).

It is not until his chapter on Coleridge (Chapter 6) that Guite really gets round to presenting a definition of imagination, and it would have perhaps been more helpful to have had that up front. Another slight wrinkle is that there is surprisingly little about poetic form. Guite describes five ways into poetry (tasting the words; echo and counterpoint; images and allusion; ambiguity and ambivalence; perspective and paradox), but he leaves formal properties (metre, genre, rhyme schemes, etc) almost entirely to one side. I was also disappointed that one so evidently sensitive to cadence and the value of simplicity should render John 1:4 – ‘and the life was the light of men’ – as the ‘life is the light of humankind’ (237). Whatever may be said in defence of gender-neutral translations of the Bible, it cannot be held that they favour economy or rhythm!

But these are tiny glitches and the abiding impression left by this volume is overwhelmingly positive. Guite’s enthusiasm for poetry is infectious and his skill in analysis absolutely outstanding. The critiques of Heaney that top and tail the volume are some of the most brilliant and eye-opening literary treatments that I have ever read. The discussion of Hardy and Larkin is also especially rewarding, for here, without traducing the poets’ scepticism, Guite shows how their sensitive artistic consciences often imply more grace-filled possibilities than they are prepared logically to admit: in these poets ‘we see with the eyes of the imagination the truth which reason cannot see’ (181).

I have already commented on the vast scope of the book (stretching from Old English to contemporary writing): there are minutely close readings too. Indeed, one especial pleasure is Guite’s tracing of a single word – darkling – through the poetry of Milton, Keats, and Hardy. This sort of microscopic attentiveness offsets most satisfyingly the large sweeps and the broad horizons elsewhere.

It is a serious work, but passionate and pugnacious, not leaden. I shall never be able to view the close of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the same way again after Guite’s humorous ‘allegorical’ reading of the play-within-the-play: ‘the mechanicals’ attempt to keep reminding everybody that they are not really Pyramus or Thisbe or a lion or the moon, but only Snug or Snout or Bottom, and thus destroying their own art, stands as a parable for the whole poverty of our way of knowing the world since the Enlightenment: the poverty of reductionism’ (66). It is these unexpected perspectives and wit-wrought connections that makes the book so bracing. Guite is arguing for the ‘cleansing and training of vision through a revitalised imagination’ (244), but he is also constantly demonstrating that very quality in the way he writes and thinks.

Coleridge, Guite reminds us, saw the human mind and imagination made in God’s image as ‘the very focus of all the rays of intellect which are scattered through the images of nature’ (165). Miraculously, we have inside us, in the divinely created imagination, if only we will acknowledge and access it, a magic prism or million-faceted diamond that may mediate and multiply the light of the Logos into profound insights and intimations.

Faith, Hope and Poetry is a vindication and a celebration of that transfigurative faculty, the dew-drop that is both mirror and window, and it achieves these ends within a thoroughly orthodox theological framework. The double and treble seeings of great imaginative poetry are an earnest of the life available in the two-natured Son of the three-personed Deity, for Guite’s orientation is always God-ward, leading further up and further into the beatific vision. It is superbly apt and beautifully suggestive that Caroline Stone’s cover photograph of the water-drop should be entitled ‘Before the Sun’.


6 responses

  1. I admired this book a great deal, and your review of it captures this book so fully and so elegantly. Guite’s words about poetry are poetry themselves, and your review had glimmers of that same poetry. (Your use of water imagery to describe the flow of the book is not lost on me!) I actually printed off this review so I can keep it tucked inside my copy of Guite’s book and use it to help explain to others why they ought to read this book. Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Waiting on the Word for Advent | Lancia E. Smith

  3. I’m new to Guite’s work, but bought myself his Waiting on the Word and have been totally taken in by his commentary on the poems in the book. He is training me to read more carefully. I appreciate your review and you have provided a few rabbit trails to go further on. A sure sign of excellent writing. Happy Advent!

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  5. Pingback: Imaginative Apologetics | Along the Beam

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