Sentinel Poetry (Online) #37
3rd Anniversary Issue – December 2005
The Poet as Priest
The first consideration for the titling of this essay was “The Pen and The Pulpit.” An immediate danger of a possible semantic ambiguity was at once apparent in the metonymy, ‘Pen’ as juxtaposed against the other one, ‘pulpit’ in relation to the intended overall theme. The first term could signify an act of furious scribbling at worst or diligent creative writing at best; while the second might throw up an image of cassocked, turbaned morality, vehement religious demagoguery or- depending on the reader- of a solemn liturgy. The intended analogy and common denominator between poetic contemplation and the esoteric – and not necessarily pastoring; that deep ‘inkwell’ spirituality, which dyes the poem, the saffron robe and the cassock all at once – is in danger of being washed to an even deeper fade in polluted contemporary religious waters: hard water!, the drinking of which can be poisonous, leaving the adherent delirious with all manner of illusions in an already deluded world. Since religion has failed the modern world-especially after the enlightenment- the poet is, in a metaphoric sense, the only true priest left in civil society.
The changing of the guards from
priest to poet as the guardian of civil society’s spiritual health
actually dates back to the ancients. Since this is not a sermon, the following
accounts in the Bible, and further references to ‘the book’, should
be read as a secular reception- as ‘text’ merely, devoid of religious
undertones or as a story – fictional, factional or mythological. The book
of Genesis all too often details the spiritual vacillation of the tribe of
The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murm'ring race,
As ever tri'd th'extent and stretch of grace;
God's pamper'd people whom, debauch'd with ease,
No king could govern, nor no God could please;
(Gods they had tri'd of every shape and size,
That god-smiths could produce, or priests devise:)
These Adam-wits, too fortunately free,
Began to dream they wanted liberty:
And when no rule, no precedent, was found
Of men, by laws less circumscrib'd and bound,
They led their wild desires to woods and caves,
And thought that all but savages were slaves…
It is necessary here to delimit the context of the plural substantive, ‘Jews’- as it appears in the above quotation- since it could be misconstrued to be derogatory. ‘Jews’ there is an allegory for the English of those days. Although the deployment of this plural noun, especially in its larger allegorical anchoring, could be deemed as not being coloured by that barbaric endless list of prejudices this group has suffered in the hands ancient Europe up to our modern times, it could still be deconstructed as being performative of the ills of those times. At least Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is full of such biases in the figure of Shylock, as much as it is present in Othello’s character depiction.
The poem in its entirety is merely a biblical parallelism- one about the plot against king David by his son, Absalom in II Samuel, 13-18- as superimposed on the court intrigue of a 1678 England; a crisis that has become the ‘Popish plot’ in early modern English history. Considering the religious tone of the crisis, the choice of a Biblical allegory is exceptionally apt; and each character in the narrative represents some historical figure, place or event. For example, ‘Jews’, as has been mentioned above, represents the English; the Biblical David is Charles II, Absalom is James Scott, duke of Monmouth and Achitophel the Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper ad infinitum. The Popish plot was a rumoured plan by the English Roman Catholics to murder the King and entrench themselves on the religious life of the day.
So much for early modern English politics; the point is to highlight the fact that the priesthood, even in ancient times, was already abdicating its function as “light of the body”, so described by Jesus in the new testament; or as example to the gentile – that is in as much as one can perceive ancient Israel, the chosen one, as a collective priesthood, the one called as a priest gets ‘the call’. They rebelled and turned their back now and again as they had the occasion or excuse to do. In the same way the early modern Church, entangled in the Popish plot as it was, could be said to have been abdicating its role as spiritual refuge and safe harbour from what the late Victorian Gerald Manley Hopkins referred to as “ Woe, world-sorrow” in the poem, “No worst, There is None”. Poem after poem the spiritual vacuity of the time was bemoaned by poet after poet from Hopkins himself to Hardy and Housman in, A Shropshire Lad. Of course these poets are a measuring rod for the spirit of their times. As suggested by Ben Okri in A Way of Being Free:
If you want to know what is happening in an age or in a nation, find out what is happening to the writers, the town-criers; for they are the seismographs that calibrate impending earthquakes in the spirit of the times. Are the writers sleeping? Then the age is in a dream. Are the writers celebrating? Then the first flowers of a modest golden age are sending their fragrances across to the shores of future possibilities. Are the writers strangely silent? Then the era is brooding with un-deciphered disturbances.
The Late Victorian age is very true
of this spiritual efficacy or lack of it in the poet. Its creative
sensibilities responded to the decadence ushered in by the political chicanery
of the late middle ages as captured in Absalom
and Architophel. The early modern period preceded
the industrial revolution, which complicated the ills and spiritual vacuity of
the middle ages from the rise of monarchies to the beginning of European
exploration and its consequent ravaging of outside spaces. The late Victorian period bore the spiritual
brunt of English mis-history within
Therefore it is understandable that the poet priests of the late Victorian period, who, responding to their true calling as priests of the word and of the human spirit in their discerning, compassionate and deeply humane nature, should feel heavy! Here is an example from one of them, Hopkins, on the road to depression:
No worst, There is None
"No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing -
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-
-ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep."
is significant that
The only other poet one can think of comparable is the biblical king David, the ironic marker of John Dryden’s allegorical impulse; for David’s psalms are nothing but the poetic outpourings of a man who should be banished from the face of God but who, in his psalmist act of penance and atonement, taps into a spiritual spring inside him, which wells and oozes outwards and throws up a geisha of epiphany and overwhelming engrossing poetry. The language of the psalmist is indeed one of a poet, who is keenly aware of the idea of truth and its resultant cleansing and infectious beauty, such as would inspire generations of poets, priests and laymen alike.
I mentioned before that religion has failed man. It is in the sense that poetry left the church right from the middle ages, when mother church was involved in politics, slavery, the receiving of bribes for the purpose of giving shrift and holding land at a profit. The untruth of the medieval church culminated in the schism where at a point there were three popes on the throne of Peter!, that is counting a pope in Rome, one in England and one in Avignon.
18th century philosophers did well in seizing upon the eroded authority of ecclesiastical spirituality by declaring God dead. Enlightenment philosophy placed the rational (white adult) male, who Aristotle described as ‘that two-legged thing!’, in the middle of the universe; rational meaning lacking in truth except as science validates, reducing the inner-wellspring of conviction to the law of the test-tube and microscope. If you cannot measure it or touch it, it does not exist. Therefore man was made into a zombie, soulless, without an inner guiding light; the electric bulb or torch-light would serve! Strangely some call it humanism! What a waste of words – much the same way as some contemporary poets and poetasters waste words, too lazy or harried to pay much attention to the inner spirit of words as Hopkins and several poets after him did; they have become deaf to the inner ear of craft, and let loose a mechanistic, automated proliferation of dead words. Write a book a year is the slogan; it does not matter if it kills the soul. Pour it out indiscriminately; drown everyone around you in the vapid production of versified prose! Kill the spirit of the letter. Kill the only priest we have left in a sinking world. Hopkins had a theory for his writing based on genuine conviction and carefully observed phenomena, a keen ear for words, all closely allied to waking up the sublime; so did Blake – even though he was not in the church, he was as much a priest:
In the poetic theory of William Blake, the act of creation requires a type of visionary activity quite beyond the ordinary, especially if that creativity is to be powerfully original and revolutionary. In the classic Romantic view of the role of art and the functioning of the artistic personality, imagination is epistemologically central--a philosophy and method which Blake was quite in advance of his time in formulating for himself at the tail end of the 18th Century "Enlightenment" of reason. There must be, in this anti-rationalist theory of the mind, a certain unmoored willingness to experience the horror and beauty of the sublime, of that which goes beyond the common norms of awareness and experience, and which springs from unseen sources at the roots of being. This functioning of the creative mind, later characterized finely by the French poet, Rimbaud, as the derangement or disordering of the perceptive faculties in order to allow for real vision (le déréglément de tous les senses ), ever seeks the new and unpredictable muse.
Where, pray, is this vision spoken of above in our commercialised poetry of today and its in its hip-hopp-ised versions? There are those, of course, who still work within the perimeters of studied craft and vision but there is just too much fluff and chaff parading as corn. This is perhaps a sign of the times, a postmodern culture of consumerism and over-production, a new decadence that asphyxiates; a culture of war and war-mongering, of headless carousal and hedonistic descent into Dante’s hell. Hopefully it will not kill the priest in the poet as previous ages killed the priest in the pulpit and in the street: what inhuman humanism!
Ede is a
Writer-In-Residence, Carleton University,