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The Country of the Spirit
By Rushworth M. Kidder
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1973 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Dylan Thomas wrote religious poetry. This statement has the support of a number of his critics; as it stands, it is perfectly true and not very useful. The word "religious" has become a catchword, a simple term of classification for certain easily observed characteristics of a poem. And, as such, it has suffered from generalization and from a tendency to subsume into it the more specific meanings included in such words as pantheistic, pagan, mystic, and sacramental. If the phrase "religious poetry" is to be a part of our critical vocabulary — and it is a very useful phrase — some clarification is necessary.
The extent of this problem is indicated by the breadth of twentieth-century commentary on the relationships between poetry and religion. The distinct and firmly rooted views of Dr. Johnson, who held that poetry was of little use to religion, and of Matthew Arnold, who held that poetry replaced religion, have exfoliated into a tangle of more recent aesthetic and theological theorizing. Two major branches may be discerned. There are those who, with Santayana, feel that "religion and poetry are identical in essence, and differ merely in the way in which they are attached to practical affairs." Along this line, David Jones argues that, since art is symbolic and symbols sacred, "Art knows only a 'sacred' activity." Proponents of this view hold that the Christian cultural tradition, having shaped the work of every present-day western artist, is bound to manifest itself in western art: "it is increasingly recognized," asserts John McGill Krumm, "that an expression of cultural creativity is almost inevitably religious in its scope and ambition." Not merely religious, such expression is held to be frankly Christian. For the influence of Christianity is radical enough to destroy previous faith. As C. S. Lewis quips, "A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce."
Such a view leads, inevitably, to a blurring of the boundaries between the religious and the secular. If poetry by its very nature is religious, "religious poetry" is no more than a redundancy, and students of it no more than theoreticians of the obvious. But the fact remains that the word "religious" has implications that "poetry" does not have. And so, not surprisingly, the other major trend of thinking on this subject seeks to define the distinctions between these terms. From this point of view, as Amos Wilder observes, those who would identify poetry with religion are perpetrators of "popular misconceptions" which "fall commonly into two types": "There is the mystical or spiritualist view that all poetry is religious. ... The difficulty with such a view is that significant religion is too often confused with partial or shallow levels of experience; often with thrills, gratifications, moods which do not claim the deeper personal life. In the second place, there is the moralizing or didactic view that poetry is religious when it deals explicitly with God, Christ, Scripture, ideals or conduct, and that all other poetry is merely secular, pretty, frivolous or even immoral. Such popular misconceptions rest as much upon erroneous views of religion as of poetry." The key to resolving these "misconceptions" is to be found, according to Wilder, in an adequate view of religion.
Religion has been defined as "a series of acts and observances, the correct performance of which was necessary or desirable to secure the favour of the gods or to avert their anger." Webster's Third New International Dictionary adds to this notion of performance a concomitant belief, defining religion as "The personal commitment to and serving of God or a god with worshipful devotion." Sir James Frazer remarks on this twofold distinction: "By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. Thus defined, religion consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely, a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them." Religion, adequately defined, includes not only passive belief but also active participation. Paul Tillich, while insisting that the language and methods of philosophy have made invaluable contributions to the study of religion, distinguishes between philosophy and religion on precisely this ground of active engagement. Philosophy he defines as "that cognitive endeavor in which the question of being is asked." Religion, more than a process of questioning, belongs with revelation to the realm of the active. Revelation, according to Tillich, "must be received, and the name for the reception of revelation is 'religion.'" He continues: "... revelation becomes more revealing the more it speaks to man in his concrete situation, to the special receptivity of his mind, to the special conditions of his society, and to the special historical period. Revelation is never revelation in general, however universal its claim may be. It is always revelation for someone and for a group in a definite environment, under unique circumstances."
Most of Dylan Thomas' critics, responding to the immense collection of Biblical references and allusions in his poetry with the label "religious," mean, by that, poetry influenced by Biblical religion. And the Bible, more than a collection of convenient symbols and tales, provides its readers with attitudes as well: attitudes not only of thought but of action. Words and works, thoughts and acts, are united in Biblical religion: "Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established" (Proverbs 16:3), says the Old Testament, and the author of Hebrews (13:16) rephrases this ubiquitous dictum as "to do good and to communicate forget not." G. Ernest Wright, in an excellent argument for the serious interpretation of the Old Testament as an essential element of Christianity, observes that "The word is certainly present in the Scripture, but it is rarely, if ever, dissociated from the Act; instead it is the accompaniment of the Act." In basic agreement with Tillich's understanding of the historical nature of revelation, Wright continues: "It is ... the objectivity of God's historical acts which are the focus of attention, not the subjectivity of inner, emotional, diffuse and mystical experience. Inner revelation is thus concrete and definite, since it is always correlated with a historical act of God which is the primary locus of concentration." The active presence of God, as revealed in the Bible, does not permit reduction to a set of principles or ideas that exist in thought only; Biblical religion is not doctrine. "The relation between God and man," writes Emil Brunner, "... is not of such kind that doctrine can adequately express it in abstract formulas. ... It is not a timeless or static relation, arising from the world of ideas — and only for such is doctrine an adequate form: rather the relation is an event, and hence narration is the proper form to describe it. The decisive word-form in the language of the Bible is not the substantive, as in Greek, but the verb, the word of action. ... God 'steps' into the world, into relation with men. ... He acts always in relation to them, and He always acts."
If religion implies action as well as belief, it also implies something beyond either. Religion insists on the kind of commitment that, not simply active, is obligatory and binding. The words religion and obligation share a common root that means "a binding"; David Jones notes that "The same root is in 'ligament,' a binding which supports an organ and assures that organ its freedom of use as part of a body." The word religious, then, "refers to a binding, a securing. Like the ligament, it secures a freedom to function. The binding makes possible the freedom." Belief, after all, may be confused with mere superficial lip-service, the kind of "self-satisfied ventilation of fervent sentiments" that, as Mary Baker Eddy incisively remarked, "never makes a Christian." Acts alone, without distinguished motives to impel them, similarly fail to determine religion: "... though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor," as Paul writes, "and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing." Beyond belief and action there remains the essential obligation. It is this obligation that Helen Gardner, in her essay "Religious Poetry: A Definition," takes as the defining factor of religion: "Religion is more than attitudes, aspirations, emotions, speculations and intimations. Although it can include all these things, it includes them within a way of life consciously accepted in obedience to what are felt to be imperatives from without the self that are binding. It expresses itself, and has throughout all ages and in all societies, in rituals that have to be performed and in rules of conduct that are obligatory both personally and socially." Wilder includes these three aspects of belief, obligation, and action in his definition of religion as "our relation to the 'unconditioned' or ultimate, or that which has unconditional obligation for us, together with our response to it."
The phrase "religious poetry" will be of greatest consequence here if it is defined in terms of Biblical religion, and if Biblical religion is understood to entail participation and obligation as well as theory. Religious poetry, then, will be found to involve (1) statements about faith based on Biblical thought, (2) a sense of obligation, and (3) a sense of active participation. It must be made clear, however, that obligation and active participation are not defined by membership in a particular church or sect; the question of the religious nature of a poet's work cannot be resolved simply by a biographical investigation into his form of worship. Nor are they defined by the poet's adherence to publicly accepted codes of behavior. Whether activity and obligation are public or private — whether the poet's public morals are consistent with what others consider to be the standard of public morality — is not in issue here. Poetry, to be religious, must be so not as a result of what is read into it from the facts of a poet's life, country, or social milieu; it must be so by virtue of its own statements, by the language the poet uses to determine his thought and the thought that is expressed through his language. Active participation involves a concept of religion as something other than philosophy, or ethics, or morality, or social decorum. Obligation demands both a commitment to faith and a course of activity consonant with and responsible to that commitment. These must occur where they matter most: in the privacy of the poet's work.
That Thomas considered poetry an active endeavor is apparent from his metaphors for the creation of a poem. Song, he said in the "Author's Prologue" to Collected Poems, is "a burning and crested act" (p. xv). The materials from which song (poetry) is constructed are words; and words are substance. They can be "sawn," and the poet can "hack" them into a "rumpus of shapes" (p. xvi). Hardly a passive process, his "craft or sullen art" demands that he "labour by singing light" (p. 142). His labor results in such tangible products as the "hewn coils of his trade" (p. 190) and the "skyward statue" — the memorial for Ann Jones — that is "carved from her in a room with a wet window" (pp. 96-97). Throughout his work the fashioning of poetry is compared to sculpturing, woodworking, and tailoring; metaphors for words include stone, wood, and cloth. Answering some questions about his poetic method, he summarized his metaphors of word-as-substance in this way: "What I like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mould, coil, polish and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound...."
Thomas' concept of poetry as an active endeavor found its clearest expression in a little-known review that he wrote for The Adelphi. Commenting on J. W. Tibbie's edition of The Poems of John Clare, he observed that "... the best of Clare becomes both social and universal poetry, and ... even at his worst, he had none of the private, masturbatory preoccupation of the compulsive egoist. To Clare the writing of poetry was an action. Poetry, to too many, is a mental accident, or a substitute for physical expression. And though Clare's physical life was bounded, for the most part, by the walls of an asylum, he was an 'active' poet, just as Keats, despite his enduring passion, was a man who acted life through poetry." Action, for Thomas, was necessary in poetry. Somehow the words had to come to life of themselves, had to convey something more than a cognitive meaning. A profound involvement in the poetic medium was, he felt, essential. Noting that "all writers either work towards or away from words," he explained to Pamela Hansford Johnson that "The realistic novelist — Bennett, for instance — sees things, hears things, imagines things (& all things of the material world or the materially cerebral world), & then goes towards words as the most suitable medium through which to express these experiences. A romanticist like Shelley, on the other hand, is his medium first, & expresses out of his medium what he sees, hears, thinks, & imagines." For poetry, as he later wrote to Charles Fisher, "... should work from words from the substance of words and the rhythm of substantial words set together, not towards words. Poetry is a medium...."
The question to be asked, then, is: What means did Dylan Thomas use to create active poetry? The answer, simple to phrase, is of complex significance: his most frequent activity, and the means through which he participated in poetry as well as in religion, was the activity of praise.
The language of praise forms a basic element in almost all of Thomas' poetry. Praise, however, is not prayer. These two words, although often conflated, arise from distinct roots and have distinct meanings. Praise often forms a part of prayers; the Lord's Prayer, mainly a supplication, begins with praise. But to praise is to extol or magnify; to pray is to beseech or request. Praise includes selfless adoration inspired by the worth of the praised object or person; prayer often implies a subjective involvement inspired by need. True praise is freely given, with no thought of any return; true prayer is a request for a return. These statements, not intended to denigrate prayer, point to the radical distinction between praise and prayer, a distinction made in the interests of recovering die individual value of these words and of restoring each to a useful place in our critical vocabulary.
As is the case with the word "religious," such distinctions have not always been observed by Thomas' critics. T. S. Eliot, in a very different context, once noted that "the essential of any important heresy is not simply that it is wrong; it is that it is partly right." One of the important heresies in Thomas criticism is expressed by statements such as "Poetry to him is prayer." Partly right, this statement probably arises from a confusion of "praise" and "prayer," the sort of confusion that can occur in a reading of lines such as
O may my heart's truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year's turning.
("Poem in October," p. 115)
These lines are clearly prayer; yet they involve praise. The poet prays that next year he may be able to sing such praise as he has just finished singing this year. But to define Thomas' poetry as prayer, because it includes prayer from time to time, is not simply to fall victim to the notion that the only true religious act is prayer; it is also to ignore the great number of his poems that, thick with religious imagery, make no requests. More useful statements are that praise constitutes, for Thomas, a religious act, and that praise is the essence of his poetry.
Excerpted from Dylan Thomas by Rushworth M. Kidder. Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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