This work is based on a series of talks and lectures which John F. Deane delivered as Teilhard de Chardin Fellow in Catholic Studies at Loyola University, Chicago in 2006. It must have presented a challenge to the author to decide who to include and who to exclude based on the book’s subtitle: The response, in poetry, to the question (of Christ) Who do you say that I am? In his Foreword, Deane claims to limit his study to poetry in English. However, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil, who are included, were German and French respectively. On that basis one could make a case for more than the scant reference afforded to such a powerful and universally acknowledged mystical poet as Saint John of the Cross. Not all the commentary is written by the author. He intersperses essays by others, including work of some of his students, but regrettably the book lacks an index.
Deane tells us: ‘My study has been Christ: my living has been love and poetry’, and in Loyola he claims to have shared the study of both together. Such a high-minded statement makes one wonder was there ever any doubt or wavering along the way. Deane’s tenet is that based on our right relationship with a cosmic power, man will find his salvation. The problem there is with the semantics of the words, right and salvation, which could be interpreted as vague or theistically polemical. The religious message is foisted on one initially as he proffers his thesis with many biblical quotes, haranguing and too much presumption. Teilhard de Chardin is Deane’s knowledgeable source and anchor to whom he frequently refers: ‘Teilhard knew (rather than believed) that divine love was at the heart of creation’. Such certainty allows little room for questioners in this scheme of things.
The author in fairness does admit later, quoting Bonhoeffer, that the church can have too much ‘ballast’ with too many rules and regulations and false hopes and consolations. And the author is more convincing when he is enquiring rather than asserting as in his chapter on the Waterford poet Patrick J Daly, and in particular his poem The Last Dreamer which claims that ‘our dream was flawed’. ‘Wherein, then, lay the flaw?’ enquires Deane. ‘Perhaps in that assumed certainly, a stiff and persistent settling for dogma and ritual without a base of personal study and reading, a Church that demanded assent rather than thought and individual responsibility.’
Deane is particularly incisive when writing about the punning brilliance and authenticity of the poetry of John Donne: ‘These poems read like rehearsals for the real thing; they move like intellectual exercises, punctuated by a self-conscious wit…. Donne becomes a watcher on the battlements of himself.’ And aptly, in a world of global viruses, from The Holy Sonnets, Donne hints of Armageddon: ‘What if this present were the world’s last night? But there are irritating repetitions in some of the author’s rhetoric. Referring to Donne’s poem Hymn to God my God, in My Sickness where Donne is preparing for his own death, Deane exclaims ‘this is high seriousness to begin with, high seriousness…’ and again, despite his pointing out that this poem is really delivering a sermon to himself, does he have to over-emphasise the point with the ‘it is a warning’ and again ‘a warning’, or use the cliché of what the poet must have felt ‘in his deep heart’s core?’ There is also a questionable, suggested synonym where Deane extols the poet for overcoming ‘his sensual and sinful self’. Surely the senses are fundamental to all of us, especially poets.
The author’s argument of Christ as an outlaw or outsider (with whom he sees a parallel with a poet) is well made as evidenced from the Gospels where Jesus frequently challenged the status quo. And with George Herbert as a medium, Deane calls on a Christ of love rather than sacrifice: ‘The emphasis on love in spite of guilt already placed Herbert’s Christ in the then invidious position of being outside and beyond the legal pretensions of the Church.’ This makes for a convincing argument for Christ as an outsider or outlaw. He sat down and dined with the poor and sinners and maimed people, the outcasts of Jewish society, and, as Deane points out, was ostracised by the rich who refused to come to the wedding feast because they knew He would be there.
Deane’s insistence that evolution and creation are not dichotomous is music to the ears of a religious doubter. But an attempt to fit evolution into the Christian pattern is a more difficult undertaking, and is stated rather than developed.
However, his arguments against a seven-day creation theory and the concept of original sin are well made. Following on de Chairdin’s ‘every human body is made from cosmic dust birthed in the interior of ancient stars that long predated our planet and solar system’, Deane contends: ‘This does away with the old notion of humanity having to repay a debt from the Garden of Eden. It clears away the mist and dust of the old notion of “original sin”, that we are all born inheriting the consequences and the guilt of sin, a notion originating with Saint Augustine and causing distress and negativity in Christian faith since Augustine’s age.’
Another poet he gives a chapter to is the seventeenth century Hertfordshire poet Thomas Traherne. Although his poem The Preparative has echoes of Vaughan, for the most part, Traherne prefers to concentrate on the real world and the present moment and express himself in simple language devoid of ‘curling metaphors,’ and ‘painted eloquence’ to allow the soul to see its ‘great felicity’ and know the bliss to which it is heir. This, Deane maintains ‘chimes with the twenty-first century Christian awareness, that of our human destiny and that of all of Creation alongside us.’
One of the most refreshing poets Deane devotes a chapter to and which he rhapsodically hails as The Very Voice of God, is John Clare, the ‘peasant poet’. Attuned to nature and the open countryside, Clare detested The Enclosures which were introduced into Britain in the early part of the nineteenth century to facilitate greater production with fenced-in fields and No Trespassing signs:
‘Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine.’
And Gerald Manley Hopkins who felt a great pang on the felling of an ashtree and who saw the world ‘seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil’, could be declared the patron saint of the Green movement for, as Deane points out, humankind has a duty to care for the earth and be aware.
The reclusive Emily Dickinson, possibly as a reaction to her father’s strict Calvinism, abhorred organised religion, and perhaps in a moment of self-pity deemed herself rather irreverently ‘The Queen of Calvary’. She thrillingly makes use of dialogue in her attempt to get to know Christ:
‘Unto Me?’ I do not know you –
Where may be your House?’
And The Word, a poem by the Welsh priest RS Thomas is also written in an honest enquiry, reminiscent perhaps of Beckett:
‘Enough that we are on our way;
Never ask of us where.’
However, it is James Harpur’s wonderful pilgrimage poem The White Silhouette which perhaps best answers Christ’s question, as it concludes in the magnificent lines:
‘My face becoming your face
My eyes your eyes
I you us I you us
James lawless is the author of Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a Way of Seeing the World; https://jameslawless.net
Published in the Irish Examiner, 11/07/2020