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Poetry and the Metaphysics of Wonder
Newsletter, Wednesday, November 18
Once there was an Englishman who lived in a large house in the country beside a river that flowed down to a meadow on which stood a beautiful Anglican church. He was a gentle man who helped the poor and ministered to the sick. He was a country pastor, who went often to his church to think, to pray, and to write. He was a poet, a prophet of sorts, and an faithful priest. His name was George Herbert..
Herbert was one of those poets that critics refer to as “metaphysical poets.” They are given that name because they wrote paradoxical poems about mysterious subjects. In their own way they were the authors of fairy tales. They created works of fantasy rather than works of fiction. They wrote, not of elves, but of angels; not of Neverland but of the Everland of eternity. To discuss extraordinary topics, they used ordinary objects. George Herbert wrote about a collar, a meal, a path, a friend, and as he did, he referred to a spiritual attachment, a mystical meal, a mysterious journey, and an invisible friend. These metaphysical poets were whimsical and witty. They liked to play with words and other worlds.
Herbert was a metaphysical in the true sense. Meta means “to change” or transform, and he used language to change his readers’ perceptions, and as he changed their perceptions he changed them. It was metaphysical metamorphosis though metaphors. These poets leapfrogged from the ordinary to the extraordinary with a dash of wit and a flash of insight. In truth, this is what every poet does. Poetry, comes from the Greek word poiema, which in its most literal sense, means to “create through words.” For the poet, a tree is not a tree but a key that locks heaven and earth together. A bee is not just a bee but a miniature miner of nectar, a minute manufacturer of honey. For the poet, the bee creates the food of angels and so becomes a winged messenger for the winged messengers of God.
To think is to make connections. To think poetically is to make unusual connections in wild and wonderful ways. Anyone can see the connections between a black dog and his collar; some people might see a dog collar and see a minister, but only the poet sees every minister as a dog bound to his master. Poets are gymnasts. They use language as a trampoline, not just to do backflips, but to ascend higher into reality. As they do their verbal barrel rolls, they are simply doing us the service of showing us what all of us do whenever we use language at all.
When I use a word, I make a connection between a concrete object and an abstract object. I connect the thing I can see with the idea I cannot see. So when we are being metaphorical we are being metaphysical. We transcend the merely physical without abandoning it.
Words take us into the realm of ideas, and the realm of ideas is next door to the realm of ideals. “Ideals” in this sense are “universals” or what Plato described as “forms.” These ideals are greater than our own individual ideas and they last forever. If the philosophers are right at all, then that means that we have this gift called language that links the ordinary things in our lives to that which is extraordinary and eternal. It is language that puts us among the angels rather than among the apes. A gorilla may be taught to sign, but he will never write a sonnet. Animals grunt. Men make poems. And poems make worlds.
Considered biblically and theologically, this gift of language flows from the very life of the Triune God. The God of Holy Scripture is not a silent deity. The primordial statement, “And God said” (Gen. 1:3) is teeming with significance. While it obviously testifies to the fact that God is essentially communicative, it also serves as witness to his trinitarian nature. God the Father is the Eternally Speaking One; His Son—the Spoken Word from everlasting to everlasting; the Spirit—the very Breath which bears the Word in the act of that eternal speech. From this Great Conversation all other speech follows. God created the world by means of the Spoken Word. Words are the grounds of creaturely being. Words are the animating force which undergirds all reality. “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God” (Heb. 11: 2). Creation arose from a conversation. It derives from poetic excess. There was no want or lack within the divine life which necessitated creation, rather, the conversation was so glorious that God made a gracious decision to include others in it. So, “God said, ‘Let there be…’”
It seems to me appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination which in the beginning, for Its own delight and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should be poetry. For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.” ~C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
So it was through language that man was able to formally express the nature of the world—by words, he could “name” it. And it was through the gift of language that he was able to crown every good gift with the two jewels which tower above all other discourse—worship and gratitude. But human language was not given only as a means of communion (either with God or with his fellow man); language was also bequeathed to Man as God’s vice regent for the task of priestly service and princely dominion. It would be through the medium of speech that Adam would extend the borders of Eden from the rivers to the ends of the earth. God calls that which isn’t into existence; man calls that which is to faithful obedience and perpetual adoration.
It is no surprise, then, that the first recorded human words in Scripture were poetry: “And Adam said, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man‘” (Gen. 2:23). The magnanimity of God is such that it always requires another syllable. The goodness of God manifested in the pluriform glory of His creation is such that it constantly inspires another word on the subject. Just as creation is a concentration of divine goodness and a display of godly extravagance, even so poetry is a concentration of human language and a distillation of creaturely amazement. The best poetry follows from a robust view of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”). This is true not only because its focus is on a world divinely created and constituted “good,” but also because it recognizes the givenness and potency of words. Poetry is the glorification of human language. As such, it transfigures everything of which it speaks.
~J. Brandon Meeks
In a delightful recent article for First Things, Anthony Esolen fights for old pronouns and good poetry.
“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” ~Galileo
The Psalmist tells us that God gave wine to “gladden the heart of man,” to “make his face shine more than oil” (Ps. 104:15). The smile of God is in the transfigured grape, and through it passes from His lips to ours.
A recently discovered archive of previously unseen letters, drawings and poems by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney - two of the great post-war poets - has been acquired by Pembroke College, Cambridge, which will put them on public display. Will Gompertz spoke to the man behind the find.
Shelf Life: New Books, Old Books, and Book Deals
Baker is offering a 50% discount on all Baker Academic and Brazos Press titles (and free shipping on order over $50) through the end of the year. To receive the discount, use the code ETS2020 at checkout
An online conference featuring such notable names as N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams, Katherine Sonderegger, Ian McFarland, Kathryn Tanner, Stanley Hauerwas, Christ Tilling, Philip Zieglar, Fred Sanders, and a host of others begins tomorrow. Sign up now!
Recently, Dr. Peter J. Williams, Principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge University, led a series of “zoom classes” for The Forum of Christian Leaders on the reliability of the New Testament documents. You can watch them here.
In September, Dr. Lucas Stamps questioned some Christological claims Ian McFarlad made in his recent book, The Word Made Flesh. Dr. Scott Swain suggested a symposium, so the Henry Center decided to host an exchange of papers. Read them here.
Hear Ye! Hear Ye!
It seems like everyone is getting into the podcast racket these days, so deciding which new act to follow is a daunting task. Never fear! I am here to help. One of the most enjoyable new podcasts is hosted by my friend, Alan Cornett.
Cultural Debris is a podcast hosted by Alan Cornett who interviews guests and explores culture in the tradition of Russell Kirk, Wendell Berry, the Inklings, the Agrarians, and the Distributists.
A Little Help From Our Friends…
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