Review: Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987

Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987, Seamus Heaney. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Seamus Heaney from previously published works between 1966 and 1987.

My one previous encounter with Seamus Heaney was his rendering of Beowulf, a powerful version of this Old English heroic narrative. I’ve long wanted to explore his poetry and a while back picked up this collection, gathering a number of poems from the first half of his writing career (subsequently, an edition covering 1988 to 2013 was released).

The poems in this selection come from the following works:

  • Death of a Naturalist
  • Door in the Dark
  • Wintering Out
  • Stations
  • North
  • Field Work
  • Sweeney Astray
  • Station Island
  • The Haw Lantern

How does one summarize and review all this? One reviewer described reading Heaney as “muddled clarity.” I would agree with this assessment. Heaney demands multiple readings and this was merely my first taste. In the middle of a poem, you wonder what he is saying, and then a phrase leaps out and rivets your attention.

His work evokes the land–the bogs and trees, the fields and hedges, the broagh or riverbanks, that together create a sense of place. He captures the people–the farmers, the roof thatcher, and the Tollund Man, a mummified corpse found in one of the bogs. He remembers the dead, from Francis Ledwidge, who died in World War I to his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney (“M.K.H”) in Clearances that evoke all the memories of a loved one, the parting of death, and the awareness of our mortality.

The violence present in Northern Ireland is a frequently present backdrop to his poetry as is the imagery of Irish Catholicism from missals to masses. Much of this comes together in the last poem in this collection, The Disappearing Island:

Once we presumed to found ourselves for good

Between its blue hills and those sandless shores

Where we spent our desperate night in prayer and vigil.

Seamus Heaney, p. 261.

The collection includes selections from Sweeney Astray, Heaney’s version of the Irish poem Buile Shuibhne, the Glanmore Sonnets, and Station Island.

One should have a phone or computer handy to look up words and references that may be obscure to one. Perhaps some day, an annotated version of Heaney’s works will do this work for us. But for now, we are left to do the work for ourselves. Some will pass this up, but some of the richest readings are the ones that have required me to dig. Heaney’s works seem to me to be among these. In this we join Heaney who compared his work to that of his potato farming father:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests

I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney, “Digging,” p. 3.

Review: Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Love in the Time of Coronavirus, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.

Summary: A collection of poems written over the first year of the pandemic exploring the pilgrimage of those confined to their homes, exploring the ways we come to terms with endless days, the small gifts of love, and moment of hope amid the horror.

We all remember those days of 2020 when we discovered how an invisible virus changed our world–all the precautions, the lockdowns, the empty streets, and rising infections. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell lives in New York, which became the epicenter of horror last spring, with morgue trucks outside of hospital. Like most, the scope of her and her husband’s life narrowed down to the confines of an apartment. With the lockdown, she began a pilgrimage in words to chronicle her experience.

She takes us through the seasons of the first year of the pandemic: lockdown and rising cases, illness, recovery and relapse, staring at an unworn wardrobe, and finding herself oddly touched by the thank you’s of students on Zoom. The growing realization that this is not going away quickly, the relief of a contemporary lull, injuring oneself exercising in one’s apartment, Advent and the advent of a new wave of cases, standing in line for vaccines and the tentative steps of emerging into the world. We trace the church year from Easter to Advent, unchanging hope of resurrection and Christ’s coming in a changed and dying world.

The poems, nearly sixty, are written more or less in the form of sonnets. The songs capture both the small things of daily life and the horror of mass graves on Hart Island. The changing of the seasons reminds us of the resurgence of life as does the resurgence of wildlife in a world temporarily devoid of people. There is love. The lost love of the aged who have died too soon. There is the love for children one cannot visit, for students on a screen, for the small kindnesses of delivery. All this is dwarfed by the love in the ICU: “The old man who gave up his/breathing machine to the young man beside/him. The nurse who grieved him as he died./The EMT who knelt beside the body/long after the heart had ceased to beat.”

This collection captures the deep passion we have to live, to love, and to hope in the face of the most daunting challenge we have collectively faced in our lifetimes. We grieve, we tremble, we sicken, and hopefully recover. Then we enjoy the beauties we see in a simple walk. As the author concludes, “The virus can’t destroy/this urge to bless our life & praise/even these pandemic days.”

What is striking though is that this collection reflects a particular posture, a particular response to the pandemic. One that allows the pandemic to deepen and transform, a metamorphosis of sorts. Instead of clamoring and contending, there is a kind of quiet acceptance that the pandemic is what it is, but the things that truly make life worth living, goodness, truth, beauty, and faith, hope, and love only shine more brightly when the distracting noise of our pre-pandemic normal is silenced.

If we look back over the last year, and have second thoughts about our own responses, a new variant and another wave offer fresh chances to lean into the lessons of the pandemic. Someday our grandchildren will ask us about this time. Will we change the subject or share a glimpse of the depths we cultivated in these years? These poems give words to what all of us have experienced. We still have time, it appears, to be formed for better, or for worse. These poems invite us into the better. Will we follow?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Iona

Iona: New and Selected Poetry. Kenneth Steven. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.

Summary: A collection of poems connected to the island of Iona, the spiritual home of the author.

The island of Iona, part of the Inner Hebrides, located off the west coast of Scotland has been a destination of spiritual pilgrims from around the world. The Iona Abbey is a focal point, purported founded by St. Columba, an exile from Ireland, who brought Celtic Christianity to the island, and Scotland in turn. It became a center of scholarship and monasticism throughout the isles. It is believed that the Book of Kells was at least begun here.

Between the island’s rugged beauty, history, and the abbey, it is regarded by many as a “thin place,” one where the veil between earth and heaven, humans and God seems especially thin. Kenneth Steven, a widely published poet and frequent BBC guest, has spent summers since childhood and longer periods on the island, roving its hills and beaches, often barefoot, as he notes in many of his poems. In this book, poems written on the island on many occasions and for different publications are gathered together. It is apparent that Iona is a “thin place” for Steven, a title of one of his poems and the questions he asks in a poem titled “Iona: “Is this place really nearer to God?/Is the wall thin between our whispers/and his listening?”

Many of the poems begin with simple observations of the natural world–of otters, butterflies, spider webs, geese, and woodpeckers. Others hark to the past of the island. We imagine the harp of a Celtic bard or the fiddle of St Kilda. We observe Columba in prayer in the marshlands. We visit the ruins of Clonmacnoise monastery, imagining the community of men who broke the water of wells and lit turf fires in winter.

Some of the poetry in the collection reflect his devotion. In “Honestly,” Steven encounters God not in the stone buildings but the moorlands. In “Island,” he describes coming to the island with prayers that were “ragged things,” the breaking of the jar of his heart, and leaving the island “see through, clear.” “Prayer” wonders how anyone could not believe in God after a blue spring day, fields, orchids, the sea, the wind.

The last part of the book takes us from Iona to the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the communities of the Amish and more global reflections on the land, and on the realities of Good Friday and Resurrection. Yet we cannot help but think that his thoughts take him back to Iona in his final poem in this collection, “Sacred Place.”

This is poetry that lingers long enough in a place to see and receive what is present. To linger in these poems is to glimpse and imagine the world of Iona, as seen and experienced by the author. Until you or I can visit, these poems take us to this “thin place” known as Iona.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Mary Oliver written between 1963 to 2015.

I have only discovered the poetry of Mary Oliver since her death in 2019. Isn’t that how it often has been with great writers? One of the ironies of this was that I lived in Oliver’s birthplace of Maple Heights, Ohio for nine years. How did I miss knowing of her for so long? She was even teaching at nearby Case Western Reserve during some of the time I lived there and it was during this time that she won the Pulitzer prize in 1984 for her collection American Primitive. I am glad at last to have found her, a writer roughly of my generation.

This collection is a good introduction to her work, a selection of her poetry written between 1963 and 2015 and published in 2017, a couple years before her passing. The book features over 200 of her poems arranged in reverse chronological order, most recent first. One of the most striking things one notices is that most of the poems are of sights on her daily walks near her home in Provincetown in New England. She writes of snakes and swans, of the pond near her home, of blueberries and violets, sunrises and sparrows. Her poetry is suffused with wonder at the simplest things, her sense of the oneness of all things and her desire to be one with them.

The transcendent is never far, sometimes in the Romantic awareness of the Ultimate in all things, sometimes in echoes of Christianity, writing of “Gethsemane” and Psalm 145. Her poem “Praying” (from Thirst, 2006) might do as well as anything to encapsulate the prayers of the “spiritual but not religious”:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The reference “into thanks” reflects another theme running through her work, a profound thankfulness for life, even in its transience. In the concluding lines of “Why I Wake Early” (2004) she writes, “Watch, now, how I start the day/in happiness, in kindness.”

One of the striking things evident in the arrangement of the poems is that her later poems are much shorter, and to me carry more meaning in fewer words. Another morning poem, “I Wake Close to Morning” (Felicity, 2015) opens this selection:

Why do people keep asking to see
God's identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon
Do you think she had to ask,
"Is this the place?"

Perhaps it is the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” or perhaps the waning of life’s energies that both slows her steps and leads her to choose her words as she writes in “The Gift” when she states: “So, be slow if you must, but let/the heart still play its true part.”

It would be wrong to give the impression that all here is sweetness and light. She writes of loneliness, and disappointment, and of death. One of the few poems of social comment is on the death of Tecumseh, one of the native leaders who fought displacement from the Ohio lands. Yet the dominant note is the wonder of the world around her that makes me wonder as to how much I miss on daily walks. We see, but do we pay attention? Oliver’s poems suggest she lived a life of paying attention

Review: Splendour in the Dark

Splendour in the Dark, Jerry Root, annotations of Dymer by David C. Downing. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: An annotated edition of C. S. Lewis’s Dymer and three presentations with responses given as part of the Hansen Lectureship series at Wheaton’s Marion E. Wade Center.

Many of us, including me, who are fans of the works of C. S. Lewis have never read Dymer, his book-length narrative poem. There may be several reasons for this. It is poetry, less popular with many than prose. It does not receive the circulation that many of Lewis’s works have. Also, it was written before Lewis’s return to faith. Also, as a work of his youth, most critics thought it wasn’t very good.

This work, a product of the Ken and Jean Hansen Lectureship may help make up for this on several fronts. The lectureship, taking place at Wheaton’s Marion E. Wade Center, which houses works and papers of Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and others in their literary circle, features scholarship on the Wade Center authors. Jerry Root is a Lewis scholar and author of several books. The book which includes the lectures by Root followed by responses, also opens with the poem, lightly annotated by David C. Downing, another Lewis scholar. Downing’s annotations are sparing, illuminating rather than distracting from the text. I recommend reading the poem first, followed by the lectures.

The poem was written in rhyme royal, a rhyme scheme used by Chaucer. The scheme is ABABBCC and the lines are in iambic pentameter. It consists of nine cantos, elaborating a narrative that had come to Lewis in his teens–and though written in his twenties, has that feel. A young man in the Perfect City is sitting in class, bored with lectures, gazes out the window, hears a lark, kills his lecturer and flees the city for nature. He wanders naked through a forest, finds a mansion-castle, wanders its halls, makes love with a woman he encounters, not knowing her name or remembering his face but knows that he loves her. After going out in the morning, he is barred from returning by an old crone who drives him away. In his wanderings he survives a narrow scrape with death, encounters a man suffering wounds from a revolt in the city that followed on Dymer’s actions led by a rebel named Bran. Perhaps as penance, he stays with the man until he dies, hears a lark, then a shot and comes upon a magician’s house and learned that the magician shot the lark. Drugged, Dymer dreams of his lover but recognizes these are dreams, awakens, cries for water, jumps through the window and escapes, being mortally wounded in the process. An angel comes, saying there is one more thing he must do–engage the beast laying waste to the land that is the offspring of his night in the castle. He does, he dies and the land springs to life.

Sounds like male adolescent imaginings to me! Yet there is also a journey into increasing insight, the shattering of illusions and a development from self-absorption to self-sacrifice. Sometimes the language seems stilted by the rhyme scheme, and at other times it soars.

All these things are acknowledged in the lectures and responses. Root argues that the big idea in this poem is that “reality is iconoclastic”–that it shatters idols, and that this poem was the place where Lewis first addressed this idea that recurs in Chronicles, Surprised by Joy, and other works all the way to Till We Have Faces. In his first lecture, Root retells the story (far better than my summary above) and traces the development of the idea. The second lecture focuses on the influences upon Lewis in writing the poem, mainly in mythology and the “Christina dream” of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh. The third lecture then shows how the idea that reality is iconoclastic and many of the images of the early poem recur in deeper and richer form in Lewis’s later works. If Dymer is not a great work, it is certainly one helpful in understanding Lewis’s journey back to faith and the artistic imagination, informed and deepened by his faith, evident in his later works.

One example of how Root connects the imagery of Dymer to later works is noting the use of the mirror. In Dymer, the character sees a naked, wild-eyed man in the mansion-castle, only to realize it is himself he is seeing in a mirror. This occurs in The Great Divorce in the bus ride from hell to heaven, with Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and with Queen Orual in Till We Have Faces. Root notes that these iconoclastic experiences not only reveal the really real, but expose the true self and fuel a quest for meaning, one that would eventually lead Lewis back into the arms of Christian faith.

Both Jeffrey Davis and Mark Lewis remind us of the flaws of the work, and Davis thinks that Lewis’s failure as a poet may have been a good thing, given the later impact of his prose work. Miho Nonaka, though slightly more appreciative of Root’s efforts also finds that Lewis may have been too close to Dymer, despite Lewis’s disavowals, and also critiques the intrusion of the narrator’s voice in his children’s fiction.

Even given these criticisms, really more of Lewis, Jerry Root (and the Hansen Lectureship) have done us a great favor in bringing Dymer to our attention. As I mentioned, I knew of the work but had relegated it to Lewis’s atheist years, seeing it, as it were, the work of a different author. Root helps show us the continuity rather than discontinuity in this work, the idea that reality is iconoclastic that will recur in later works, and the reflection on Lewis’s own development. Root (and Downing) have done a great service to every Inkling in acquainting us with this work!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: No Border Land

no border land

No Border Land, Tom Graffagnino. Grand Rapids: Credo House Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A prophetic call to a world without moral or spiritual borders, to a lukewarm, compromised church, concluding with a vision of the beauty of the Christian hope rooted in the cross.

Tom Graffagnino is an artist and writer whose work I first ran into on Facebook. Often his response to posts, including some of mine, was a poem, often with a simple rhyme scheme, some clever play on words, and a prophetic “bite.”

This work combines a series of jeremiads lamenting the state of a “no border land” culture, and a lukewarm, compromised church in its first two parts concluding with a proclamation of the hope of the gospel centered in the work of the cross and God’s gift of grace.

A few samples of his writing:

Singer, Sanger, Kinsey, Leary,
Joseph Campbell, Jung, and Freud…
Prophets of New Paganism,
Heroes of the coming Void.

Marx ‘n’ Nietzsche, Kundalini
Foucault-Fun for Me and You
Listen!…Sweat Lodge Kali-calling,
Stir that New, Old Pagan Brew
. . .
Welcome to the heart of darkness,
Stand with us on sinking sand.
Place your bets on “good intentions.”
Welcome to No Border Land.

This is the opening poem and typifies the play on words, the literary allusions, the sarcastic bite of his verse, clothed in a simple rhyme scheme that runs throughout.

If anything, Graffagnino is tougher on a church that he sees is infatuated with celebrities, theologically and morally flabby, making a god it wants, a “moral therapeutic deity.” In Theraeutic Puppy Dogma, he writes:

Welcome to our Puppy Dogma
Quite the soft and cuddly sight,
Waggy-taily, always friendly…
And this Dogma doesn’t bite!

Here’s religion we can hang with,
Here’s a good God to enjoy!
Puppy Dogma co-existing,
Quite laid back…a real good boy!
. . .
Bottom line, he’s reassuring
He’ll make sure you’re feeling good!
He’ll come running when you whistle…
Like good Puppy Dogmas should!

There is a shift in tone in the third and final section, “Living Waters Living.” Graffagnino both acknowledges our spiritual destitution, and the wonder of the cross and the grace of God. In one of the poems in this section, he proclaims:

There’s a Living Word at work here,
Yes, true Language from the Heart…
There’s a Maker, there’s a Reason,
There’s a Romance from the Start.

Listen closely…there’s true Meaning
That transcends the world we’re in…
There’s a Lover who is waiting,
Christ who overcomes our sin.

He’s the Perfect Lamb, a Person,
He’s the Plan you may have heard,
God’s incarnate, Son and Bridegroom…
His proposal’s in the Word.

Each of Graffagnino’s poems is accompanied by one or more quotes by writers like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis that underscore the ideas in Graffagnino’s poems. It seemed to me that each enhanced the other.

If you are looking for a work of great poetry, I would suggest this isn’t that work. Truthfully, much of the work in the prophets, particularly the Minor Prophets, wasn’t of the highest literary quality. Graffagnino’s writing serves a different function, one much like these prophets, to hold up an uncompromising mirror, both to an unbelieving culture and a church of watered-down belief. He’s also like the unflinching doctor who doesn’t spare our feelings when telling us the truth of our condition and what will bring us healing. In doing so, his poetry soars to its most elevated as he considers the wonder of the gospel.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination

scripture and the english poetic imagination

Scripture and the English Poetic ImaginationDavid Lyle Jeffrey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of essays tracing the influence of the scriptures, and particularly the poetry of scripture, upon poetry in the English language from medieval to modern times.

If you are a Jeopardy fan, you may have noticed how most contestants avoid categories involving biblical knowledge. Friends of mine in university English departments tell me that there is a similar avoidance of Bible as literature courses by university faculty. This is particularly striking given the profound influence of the Bible upon English literature throughout history.

In this work, Baylor University English professor David Lyle Jeffrey focuses on a very specific aspect of that influence–the influence of the Bible, and particularly its poetic character, on English language poetry. He states:

“The central purpose of this collection of essays will be to explore some of the ways Holy Scripture has shaped the English poetic imagination, not merely through subject, cadence, idiom, and various echoes of its diction, but by effecting something deeper in the consciousness of English-speaking poets from Caedmon in the eighth century to Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg among our contemporaries. Essentially, this involves an atunement of the vernacular English poetic imagination to biblical poetics as a wellspring of inspiration.”

Jeffrey begins with poetry in God’s own voice, the passages of scripture where God speaks, whether through the Old Testament prophets or the parables of Jesus up through the final visions of the Revelation to St. John. The remainder of the book then explores the English poetic imagination from the medieval period up to the Reformation, and then from the Reformation to the present time. The first part includes discussions of the works of Caedmon, Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare. The second part begins with John Donne and George Herbert. In Donne, we see human love transmuted into love for the divine. In Herbert, we find one who has deeply digested the scriptures, whose poetry is a prayerful commentary of scripture as a whole. And what scripture? The following chapter explores the profound influence of the King James Version on poetry from the time of this translation forward, as perhaps the pinnacle of English expression not to be matched by modern translations, however accurate they may be.

The last chapters introduced me to modern poets I have not explored: Margaret Avison, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Foremost of these is Richard Wilbur, named poet laureate of the United States in 1987, one who Jeffrey says, “teaches us to be open ourselves to wonder.” His descriptions left me wanting to read all of them, Wilbur in particular.

He concludes with the contemporary disarray of the humanities that have ceased “being purveyors of high and noble verities for low, and often trivial, advocacies.” He sees in an academy that has dismissed the higher authority found in Holy Scripture, a place given over to the exercise of power. Against all this, he urges the community of those who are people of the Book (harking back to an earlier work) to the task of the preservation of literature in which they recognize expressions of truth that reflect that Book.

This is a book written particularly for those familiar both with the literature about which Jeffrey writes, and the academic language in which Jeffrey’s fellow academics discuss these texts. This is not so much an introduction to the influence of the Bible on poetry, as an extended rigorous disquisition for students and teachers of English literature showing from medieval to modern periods that much of English poetry cannot be well-understood apart from the biblical text that served as the wellspring of the imaginations that crafted these works.

Those without this background may despair after a few chapters. If they are hungering for a deeper engagement with literature, they might begin with other writers like Karen Swallow Prior. This is a more advanced work, especially suitable both for Christians and those who are not who are engaged in literary studies and suspect the Bible has a greater influence on the works they are studying than credited. I think Jeffrey makes a case well worth considering as well as offering a searching analysis of the parlous state of literary studies at the present time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Heart’s Necessities

the hearts necessities

The Heart’s Necessities: Life in PoetryJane Tyson Clement with Becca Stevens. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary. A collection of the poetry of Jane Tyson Clement, a member of the Bruderhof Community, interleaved with biography and comments by musician Becca Stevens, who has set several of Clement’s works to music.

Jane Tyson Clement grew up in the shadow of Columbia, began writing poetry in high school and went to Smith College. Like many, she lost and then recovered her faith. She married in the shadow of World War II, to Robert, a lawyer. Both pacifists, they eventually found their way to the Bruderhof communities where they lived the rest of their lives. Some of Jane’s poetry was published during her lifetime. More of it was found after her death from Alzheimer’s disease in 2000.

This newly published work offers a sampling of her poetry throughout her life combined with biography, and the comments of Becca Stevens. Becca is a musician who found in Clement’s Winter and February Thaw the words she was searching for to express grief for Kenya Tillery, a musical collaborator lost to breast cancer. Both of these works appear in this volume and one can listen to the song, Tillery, and four other settings of Clement’s poems at Songs for The Heart’s Necessities.

One of the marks of Clement’s poem is the keen observation of nature–the sea, birds, trees, the seasons–and the whispers of the transcendent that we overhear in her poems, speaking to or echoing the heart’s longings. The lines from which the book finds its title, in the poem Winter, are a good example:

The heart’s necessities
include the interlude
of frost restricted peace
on which the sun can brood.

Manasquan Inlet II is one of her last poems, and she is still connecting the ebb and flow of the tides and the “powers beyond our ken”:

No one can stem the tide; now watch it run
to meet the river pouring to the sea!
And in the meeting tumult what a play
of waves and twinkling water in the sun!

Ordained by powers beyond our ken
beyond all wisdom, all our trickery,
immutable it comes, it sweeps, it ebbs
and clears the filthiness and froth of men.

Some of the most moving poems in this collection are the “To R.A.C.” poems, written to Robert, her future husband. She traces the growth of their love from her first recognition of him, and she believes, he of her, to be followed by him walking out the door. We listen as they share their love of the world’s beauty while their own love is growing. We hear her struggling with whether her love is some constructed thing, as she writes, “I will remember you not as you are/but as I willed you were.”

Her later poems testify to her deepening faith, and are often piercing in insight. Lord, Show Me Thyself speaks to our longings for God, and yet how unprepared we are when God actually shows up and we are faced with the choice of whether we will “stand and open wide/the doors of being to thy light.” She describes many of us, the respectable sinners, in Resolve as she declares, “My sins are inward and refined, my friends the gentle friends of God; I must go seek the publicans, the wild companions of my Lord.”

Becca Stevens strikes me as one of many who are the “spiritual but not religious,” one of those sometimes called a “none.” Yet the poetry of Jane speaks deeply to her, and perhaps illustrates how more may be drawn to authentic beauty than persuasive attempts. She observes that “Jane has a rare ability to talk about God, spirituality, and faith in a way anyone can relate to–not in an alienating way….She looks to the movements of birds, the sea, and the seasons to answer her unresolved struggles with faith.”

For that reason, Stevens involvement in this book seems to work. She doesn’t impose interpretations upon us so much as let us hear her own musings on Clement’s work. Her contributions allow us catch our breath after drinking deeply as we read the poetry. Interspersed biography helps us understand the settings of poems from different periods. The photography combines some of the places Jane Tyson Clement would have frequented and the creative process of Becca Stevens. All in all, it is exquisitely done. This book makes a wonderful gift to a friend, or to oneself, inviting us all to ponder “the heart’s necessities.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mariner

mariner

Mariner (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Malcolm Guite. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with an analysis showing how his most famous poem foretold and paralleled the course of his own life–a journey of fall, a need for grace, and redemption.

“Instead of the cross, the Albatross/About my neck was hung.”

I first read these lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a class on Romantic Literature over forty years ago. I must admit that I have not revisited these lines until reading Malcolm Guite’s Mariner. In the poem, the mariner voyages across the Equator, braves storms and fogs, encounters an albatross who guides the crew until they are able to head northward once more, only for the mariner to kill it with an arrow. Subsequently the winds die, they languish in the doldrums until the coming of the death ship when all around die, while the mariner lives, bearing the albatross around his neck, despising the slimy creatures of the sea and the brazen sun. Things turn on a moonlit night when suddenly the mariner’s heart is filled with love for all, including the once despised sea creatures, the albatross falls and he can pray. The ship is propelled mysteriously home, spirits inhabiting the bodies of the crew. At one point he swoons, hears voices speaking of the penance he has yet to undergo for taking the life of the albatross, loved by God. Eventually, the ship in tatters, arrives home, and as the harbor pilot, his helper, and a hermit arrive, the ship sinks, with the mariner being rescued. He confesses to the hermit, and then pursues his task ever after of telling the story, including to the wedding guest detained to hear him out. He concludes his words to the guest with these, that capture the grace he has gained amid the loss of the journey:

He prayeth best, who loveth best 
All things both great and small; 
For the dear God who loveth us, 
He made and loveth all.

What Malcolm Guite does in this work is to show us how the poem, written when Coleridge was at the height of his poetic powers, presciently parallels the subsequent course of Coleridge’s life as he descends into an opium addiction that destroys his marriage, alienates his friends, and undermines his health.

Part One of the book is both biography and analysis of Coleridge’s work leading up to the composition of Rime. Guite traces his childhood upbringing as the youngest of ten children of a minister in the Church of England, his education at Cambridge, his failure to win a critical scholarship, his first use of opium, his comic career with the dragoons, his early literary efforts, his marriage through his friendship with Southey to Sara, and his growing relationship with Wordsworth, complicated as it was by first supporting him in the joint project of the Lyrical Ballads and then being overshadowed. While his marriage begins to unravel, there is an annus mirabilis of literary production, culminating in the Rime.

Part Two, in seven chapters that follow the seven parts of the poem combine analysis of the poem with a narrative of Coleridge’s deterioration as he struggles with opium addiction, his repeated failed efforts to get his finances on a sound footing, to heal his marriage, and to struggle with his affection for “Asra,” an affair that remains Platonic until broken off. We see the brilliance of his production, even afflicted by addiction, and wonder what might have been. Guite also describes the spiritual journey of Coleridge, his growing realization that his reason, even his reasoning faith cannot save him, but only grace alone. He traces the movement of Coleridge’s faith from head to heart, and the decisive surrender of his life into the care of his physician, with whom he lives the last eighteen years of his life. He writes:

“Most writers about Coleridge have opted to tell only one of two apparently very different stories: the first and best know is the sublime yet tragic story of the poet of inspiration and of agony, of the love who speaks with and from a broken heart, the poet of freedom who finds himself evermore deeply meshed in the bondage of opium, and ends his life, from that perspective, in apparent failure. The second is the story of Coleridge the thinker, the philosopher, the man of faith, the founder of literary criticism, and the originator of almost every school of literary criticism we now possess….But the real story is much more moving….When we see how Coleridge reached out toward, shaped, and attained that dynamic philosophy, that integration of faith and reason, in the midst of the heartbreak of forsaken love and the corruption and damage of opium, how he achieved what he did not only in spite of the pain and despair through which he lived, but with that pain and despair, expressed in prayer and poetry, as his materials, then we begin to see the greatness of his achievement” (p. 220).

I never felt that the parallel that Guite draws between the poem and Coleridge’s life to be forced. Rather, it seems to be a case that Coleridge wrote more than he knew. For Guite, the later glosses on the poem that Coleridge added are vital to his argument, hinting at the insights from life Coleridge has gained that only deepen the meaning of his work.

I also appreciated Guite’s analysis of the poem and its movement of descent and fall, realization of the need for grace, and redemption. In addition, one of the themes Guite explores is an environmental one–the groaning creation, and the necessity of loving what God has loved. I also delighted in how the seven sections of his analysis of the poem are complemented by the illustrations of Gustave Doré.

This book is an utter delight, doing justice to Coleridge, his work, and his most famous poem. Malcolm Guite, an accomplished poet and theologian, brings all these gifts to bear in a study that helps us appreciate the intellectual contribution of Coleridge, the power of his poetic works, and the work of grace experienced by this tormented man. The narrative of Coleridge’s opiate addiction, his inability to save himself, his surrender and dependence upon a Higher Power is a narrative that others who struggle with addiction will understand, and perhaps find hope in for themselves. I think both Coleridge and his mariner would be glad were this so.

Review: The Personal Heresy

the personal heresy

The Personal HeresyC. S. Lewis, E. M. W. Tillyard. New York: Harper One, 2017 (originally published 1939).

Summary: A discussion of whether the personality of the author should enter into the criticism of a work of poetry.

In 1934 C. S. Lewis published an article in Essays and Studies to defend this assertion:

In this paper I shall maintain that when we read poetry as poetry should be read, we have before us no representation which claims to be the poet, and frequently no representation of a man, character, or a personality at all.

The article was written for anyone to take up. E. M. W. Tillyard published a response in the following year that led to two more rounds of responses between Lewis and Tillyard, resulting in this book in its present form.

In a nutshell, the controversy between the two men concerned whether, in poetry, we have access to the personality or mind of the poet in some degree (Tillyard) or whether poetry is about something in the world (Lewis). Lewis contends that in poetry, the poet is saying “look at that” and not “look at me.”

Tillyard proposes that in a poet’s work, we encounter a certain “fixed state of mind.” What makes the reading of and reflection upon poetry worthwhile is contact with particularly perceptive minds, and that in literary criticism, to attempt to discern the character of the poet’s mind, as well as what that mind perceives is a valuable part of the critic’s contribution to understanding a work.

What both strenuously object to is “poetolatry,” and particularly using the biography of the poet as some kind of critical shortcut to understanding a work of poetry, without doing the hard work of study and reflection upon the poem itself. The subsequent discussion then is a back and forth between Lewis, who thinks personality does not enter in any important way in the understanding of a poem, and Tillyard, who tries to find various arguments and approaches and examples to persuade Lewis, and the reader, otherwise.

It is of a piece with works like The Abolition of Man, in Lewis’s defense of the objective against the incursions of relativism and subjectivism. While I find myself in agreement with Lewis, and particularly with the slipperiness of assertions about an author’s personality, I also recognize that the style and perception of different writers does reflect something of their unique personalities. The problem, it seems is saying just what this is, and in this case, I think we are wiser to stick with Lewis’s approach, because the work, and what the poet has said in it about something is really all we have. Anything else seems largely a speculative venture, at least in my own critically untrained opinion!

One of the delights in reading this is to see two scholars sharpening each other’s thoughts in dialogue, while respecting the person with whom they are in disagreement. It also strikes me as characteristic of many academic dialogues I have observed–while ideas are sharpened and clarified, positions rarely change, at least within the frame of such a discussion. The ground of disagreement may diminish, the areas of common agreement are more clearly articulated, but usually some fundamental disagreement remains. Even if you do not understand all the terms of the argument, this is a glimpse of the academic world at its best, as these closing words of E. M. W. Tillyard suggest:

…Mr. Lewis is an admirable person to disagree with; and I incline to admire his arguments as much when they seem wrong as when they seem right. He is, indeed, the best kind of opponent, good to agree with when one can, and for an enemy as courteous as he is honest and uncompromising; the kind of opponent with whom I should gladly exchange armour after a parley, even if I cannot move my tent to the ground where his own is pitched.

Would that the university world, and our public discourse were marked more by this kind of spirit!