In prior posts, I have raised the issue of what I termed “the scandal of the Evangelical imagination,” and have drawn attention to one of the figures who is helping to redress this, poet/priest/singer/songwriter/scholar etc Malcolm Guite. For Christmas, I received a copy of Guite’s book, Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, and had all kinds of good intentions of finishing the book and then reviewing it on this blog. My current problem is that I am only a third or so through the book, and already have probably enough inspiration to fill a number of blog posts, so I have decided to post my review of the book in a few parts. Here begins part I:
There is a point where one just can’t take it anymore. By “it” I mean the vague, fuzzy, warm sentimental idealism that one often encounters in my profession, the study of English literature – although to be fair it is more often the rhetors rather than the scholars who play it up. Poetry is inspirational!!!; isn’t creativity wonderful?; imagination is the key to [insert goal here]! And when one encounters this one too many times, one finally snaps. Isn’t imagination wonderful? No, but I’ll say yes if it makes people like you go away. Isn’t freedom to be creative great? No, because what you mean by freedom has I think very little to do with being creative. Doesn’t poetry just open your eyes to the wonder of the world? Yes, yes it does, and also the tragedy, horror and misery of it too. Before one knows it, one feels deep kinship with Swift, seeks solace in Ecclesiastes, and knows what Flannery O’Conner meant when, upon being asked if universities don’t stifle aspiring writers, replied that they rather don’t stifle enough of them.
I include this as prefatory material because it will help give some measure of what exactly I mean when I say that Malcolm Guite’s book is helping to revive in me some understanding of wonder – of terms such as creativity, imagination – that were long ago shattered by encounters with vapours disguised as these things. The main title of the book covers three topics – faith, hope, and poetry – and while I’m good with faith, and good with poetry, hope, as some of you will know, is for me one of the hardest sayings of the gospel. Of course, the hardness of a thing should never keep us from enacting it in faith, but I will say that Guite’s remarkable book is opening my eyes a little to the thing I am trying to faithfully enact. It takes something special to be hopeful without allowing hope to become the kind of optimism that papers over things, and it also takes daring because being hope means imagining a vision beyond the alleged data – a vision that the reality police often do not like. In any case, Guite models both, and if I am a poor student, I am at least a willing student.
So, what is so special about this book? First off, I must say that not everyone picking it up should expect the same experience I have had. It will, for instance, be particularly annoying to those who do not believe in an ongoing conversation of great ideas from the beginning of writing till now. It will be annoying to those who believe that scholars shouldn’t make overarching claims about literary history, and should stick to their own little fields and let others stick to theirs – scholars such as I am in my worse moments. In fact, in approaching the poems he considers from both an academic and creative writing perspective, Guite takes the risk of being charged by one side of sacrificing scholarly nicety for creativity, and on the other side of dredging up old boring poetry that has nothing to say to the modern creative writer.
What such critics might find most annoying, though, is what I find most attractive. In the hands of Guite, old poetry is revivified such that it can speak into the milieux of contemporary poetry, theology, theory, and politics. However, this is not an only alleged dialogue where old works simply become puppetry to say what modern people want them to say – Guite lets the alterity of the poetry push back. The results of this are messy; the book is neither a neat scholarly work in the traditional sense, nor simply a modern “how-to” book for creative writers. Rather, what I sense most behind the book is ongoing dialogue – Guite wrestling with the poems he encounters in an arena where the strictest rules apply and the judge is Christ – no easy outs or deceptive maneuvers here. In certain ways it reminds me of what might have happened had Boethius encountered not Philosophy but the best of the muses rather than the harlots he dismisses at the beginning of the Consolatio.
I will be saying more, but for the current post I will focus on one particular section that impressed me: Guite’s treatment of Old English poetry. As an Anglo-Saxonist, I will admit that one of the most attractive features of this book even before I bought it was its inclusion of a chapter on “The Dream of the Rood.” Very often even Christians talking about faith and imagination are under the impression that nothing much happened before the Romantic period of literature, which has as much as anything else to do with the fact that such Christians who want to engage imagination are often Evangelicals, and Evangelicalism is birthed from the same historical moment as Romanticism – how can they remember what happened before they were born? In any case, as a scholar of medieval and early modern literature, I am often frustrated by those who ignore these literatures when they look to define what creativity and imagination are, and part of the attraction of Guite’s book was the front and centre inclusion of “The Dream of the Rood” – an inclusion no doubt inspired in part by his friend, Seamus Heaney.
Beyond its inclusion, however, the real test for me was whether he in fact “got” the poem – not that I am of course the ultimate judge of this, but as an Old English scholar I am qualified to gauge this chapter in a way that I am probably not for any of the other chapters, with perhaps the exception of the one on John Donne, which I have not yet read. In any case, I was well aware that it would be very easy for a theologian to get his hands on a translation and use the poem as a superficial prop for a more broad theological claim. But this is not what Guite does. To his credit, he includes passages from the original Old English, and discusses minute nuances and shades of words. Of course, not every Old English scholar will agree with his interpretation (if they did, it would have to be a bland interpretation indeed), but I was personally intrigued by what he does with the poem, particularly with relation to the much vexed issue of Christianity and paganism in Old English literature. Though the best critics are careful to hedge their claims and carefully navigate the polyphony of the Old English texts, critics have in the past often found themselves divided into two camps: the exegetically oriented critics situating the literature with regard to the Christianity that informed the context in which the manuscripts were preserved; and oral-formulaic critics more interested in the poetry’s alleged sedimentary paganism preserved from the pre-Christian times when the poetry was passed down orally.
In any case, Guite reads the poem against the backdrop of C. S. Lewis’s idea that pagan myths, rather than mere falsehoods to be utterly destroyed, could gesture, powerfully yet also imperfectly, toward the truth of Christianity. Guite’s articulation of this set something off in my head, and I realized that this is the way I (likewise influenced by this idea in Lewis) tend implicitly to read Old English poetry – though an exegetically inclined critic, I knew, thanks to Lewis, that the inclusion of a pagan idea in a poem must not always be damnable syncretism or subversive revolt, but could in fact be the baptism of that idea, wherein that idea found its perfection in Christianity. Of course, in reality, this is neither Lewis’s nor Guite’s idea but a very longstanding one in Christian tradition. Guite’s relation of Lewis’s conversion, though, via the circuitous but probably also necessary avenue of Norse myth, is helpful in communicating the “The Dream of the Rood” to modern Christians, who can see that the “tree” of the cross is not only a simultaneous appeal to and displacement of Yggdrasil in Old Norse myth, but is also an appeal to and displacement of the enduring value conveyed in the myth and appreciated by (comparatively) modern people such as Lewis.
Of course, what Guite is saying here – that there is something in Old English alliterative verse that modern poets can learn from and use – is not an altogether new idea, given poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus Heaney, and Earle Birney, as well as the poetry of J. R. R. Tolkien’s deeply Anglo-Saxon imagination. Moreover, there are, I imagine and hope, more than a few lovers or scholars of Old English verse who have tried their hand at it and found the results not entirely unpleasing and anachronistic. Where Guite’s genius lies, though, is in explicitly articulating beyond modern aesthetics why not only poets, but in fact theologians, Christians, and other moderns lamenting the modern/postmodern crisis in fact need to be revivified by engagement with poems like “The Dream of the Rood.”