Tagged: poetry

Hermeneutics with Samuel Johnson

Saml Johnson readingSamuel Johnson gives some excellent advice in his Preface to Shakespeare (1765) that applies to reading in general, and especially well to Bible reading. Johnson advises readers to plow straight through a Shakespeare play, keeping up a good pace even when passages aren’t clear. To slow down and investigate the unclear passages more carefully would be to lose the momentum and lapse out of the literary flow.

And above all, Johnson warned, don’t check the footnotes! Commentators are inevitably offering you help with details (glosses, etymologies, textual emendations, cultural context, explanations of allusions), but before you need details, you need to experience the whole. Read on, read on:

Let him read on through brightness and obscurity, through integrity and corruption; let him preserve his comprehension of the dialogue and his interest in the fable. and when the pleasures of novelty have ceased, let him attempt exactness, and read the commentators.

“Notes are necessary,” says Johnson, “but they are necessary evils.” They provide valuable clarification, but “the general effect of the work is weakened” because “the mind is refrigerated by interruption.”

I take Johnson to be making two major points. The first is about the experience of the reader, who can only grasp the book’s complete flow by committing to experiencing it in sequence, page by page, steadily. Stopping at every bit that needs to be clarified will in fact add knowledge of the bits and pieces, but inevitably robs you of the flow.  And in many forms of literature, what you get from the flowing experience is what makes the detailed knowledge worth pursuing. The plot carries you along, or the character development, or (in non-fiction) the intellectual unfolding of an idea or progress of an argument and its entailments.

The second point can be put more philosophically: meaning comes from the whole and informs each part. No individual bit, no matter how much you clarify it, can in isolation deliver the work’s meaning. Johnson is explicit about this in his Preface:

Parts are not to be examined til the whole has been surveyed. There is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the comprehension of any great work in its full design and its true proportions; a close approach shows the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the whole is discerned no longer.

The ideal way to work out this part-whole dialectic is, I suppose it’s obvious, to read and re-read the text. Once you have achieved the “intellectual remoteness” of having the entire work in your mind’s eye, you can then investigate whichever “smaller niceties” seem most important or interesting. That was Johnson’s plan with Shakespeare, and it also makes sense as a plan for Bible reading.


Wordsworth in the West

wordsworth in vacant or in pensive moodWilliam Wordsworth perfected a certain type of nature poetry, a particularly spiritual sort of nature lyric. He celebrated the movements of the infinite Spirit making itself known to humanity through the forms of nature as contemplated by poet-prophets who were the universe’s appointed spokesmen. Nature herself elected certain sensitive souls, forming them throughout early life to be receptive to her revelations in later life.  As he recounts in The Prelude, Nature populated his young imagination with the forms of giant cliffs and dark forebodings, of dancing daffodils and of entire hillsides humming as aeolian harps, so that in his poetic maturity he could be shown greater revelations: the vision atop Mount Snowdon, “the perfect image of a mighty Mind… that is exalted by an underpresence.” Nature was trying to tell him something, and his job as a poet was to relay that message to us.

In the 1920s, Aldous Huxley wrote a short essay attempting to deflate Wordsworth’s poetry by identifying it as not universal, but narrowly local:

In the neighborhood of latitude fifty north, and for the last hundred years or thereabouts, it has been an axiom that Nature is divine and morally uplifting. For good Wordsworthians — and most serious-minded people are now Wordsworthians, either by direct inspiration or at second hand — a walk in the country is the equivalent of going to church, a tour through Westmorland is as good as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. To commune with the fields and waters, the woodlands and the hills, is to commune, according to our modern and northern ideas, with the visible manifestations of the “Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe.”

Wordsworth, says Huxley, misunderstood himself. He was not telling us what universal nature says about itself; he was telling us what the Lake District says. At best he was speaking for a territorial spirit, a particularly nice one; but certainly not for universal spirit. Not God but a British sprite or nymph.

In Huxley’s view, if you hand the microphone to nature at another latitude, you’d hear a different testimony:

The Wordsworthian who exports this pantheistic worship of Nature to the tropics is liable to have his religious convictions somewhat rudely disturbed. Nature, under a vertical sun, and nourished by the equatorial rains, is not at all like that chaste, mild deity who presides over the Gemüthlichkeit, the prettiness, the cozy sublimities of the Lake District.

For Wordsworth, Nature had her terrors, but in global context the terrors of the English countryside are merely cute. “The worst that Wordsworth’s goddess ever did to him was to make him hear ‘Low breathings’ … and ‘sounds Of undistinguishable motion.'” And scary as that might be to a kid in the country, the mature Wordsworth still “seems to have imagined that this was the worst Nature could do.”

But “a few weeks in Malaya or Borneo would have undeceived him,” says Huxley.

The sparse inhabitants of the equatorial forest are all believers in devils. When one has visited, in even the most superficial manner, the places where they live, it is difficult not to share their faith. The jungle is marvelous, fantastic, beautiful; but it is also terrifying, it is also profoundly sinister. There is something in … the character of great forests … which is foreign, appalling, fundamentally and utterly inimical to intruding man. The life of those vast masses of swarming vegetation is alien to the human spirit and hostile to it.

Huxley’s essay is stimulating to read, and even though it soon becomes evident that his arch dismissiveness is part of a strategy to to conceal the fact that he is out of his depth in criticizing Wordsworth, he does score some points. For one thing, Huxley is able to critique the Lake Poet from a New World perspective:

It is a pity that he never traveled beyond the boundaries of Europe. A voyage through the tropics would have cured him of his too easy and comfortable pantheism. A few months in the jungle would have convinced him that the diversity and utter strangeness of Nature are at least as real and significant as its intellectually discovered unity. Nor would he have felt so certain, in the damp and stifling darkness, among the leeches and the malevolently tangled rattans, of the divinely anglican character of that fundamental unity.

There are many things happening in Wordsworth’s poetry, but one of them, as Huxley rightly notes,  is a kind of natural theology. He believes nature is showing him something about what is beyond nature, and on that basis he makes certain statements about God –though it took Wordsworth decades to learn distinctions between the mandatory pantheistic mood of his poetic idiom and the trinitarian commitments that worked as a corrrective against it.

In light of Huxley’s “you’ve never even seen a rainforest” criticism, I have two questions about Wordsworth’s natural theology. The first is regional, the second is doctrinal.

The regional question is this: If we grant that Wordsworth is (receptively) sensitive to and (productively) articulate about his natural environment, then it may well be that the poet is prophet of the spirit of nature. But perhaps he is only prophet of the spirit of nature as it is available in one region. If all this is true (a chain of ifs, admittedly), then perhaps other poets in other regions can also speak the truth of their microclimates and localities. Instead of just saying “I’ve seen the tropics, and the people there believe in devils,” Huxley could seek out nature poetry from tropical regions, and see if in fact they are constructing a rougher, less humane natural theology.

As part of an ongoing project of understanding California theologically (see the website and the recent book), I am especially interested in what has been said by nature poets of the American west. If we have had our California Wordsworth yet, it would probably be Robinson Jeffers, whose rock-and-hawk, surf-and-sky Inhumanism claimed to give voice to the opinion of the California coastline. Indeed, the natural theology of Jeffers was (as perhaps Huxley would have predicted) considerably darker than anything Wordsworth ever dreamed of. Wordsworth was haunted by cliff forms that chased him; Jeffers imagines mountains splitting humans open to see what’s inside these noisy mites. If Wordsworth in the tropics would produce a natural theology of devils, our Wordsworth of the west coast produced a natural theology whose gods are at best indifferent to human destiny and at worst are in a hurry to shrug off the parasitic vermin that is man.

The doctrinal question that occurs to me is this: Wordsworth operates poetically at enough of a distance from orthodox Christianity that while he speaks of Nature making things known about supernature, he never speaks of “general revelation” or of God revealing himself through nature. Everything depends on ambiguity on this point; the Platonizing, pantheistic mist is essential to Wordsworth’s achievement as an oracle. But what if we can turn to Wordsworth as a spokesman, not for what God says about himself but for what nature says about God? What if we can hear in a nature poet –chastened, relativized by localism, and filtered for the way his or her own personality necessarily colors the poetry– not the voice of God but the voice of non-human creation, saying something about God? If nature makes messages known through poets, those messages are not binding, canonical, or authoritative. But they do come from an older source with privileged access to things humans can’t know without help.

War is Swell: Crispin’s Day

Okay, war is not really swell. But today (October 25) is the anniversary of two battles that live on in our memory because of the martial virtues conspicuously displayed in them. These battles conjured poetry from two of the greatest poets in the history of the English tongue.

First, the Battle of Agincourt, on the Feast of St. Crispin, 1415. Henry V’s outnumbered troops whooped the French with fancy footwork, English longbows, good old British pluck, and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, the greatest battlefield speech ever. Of course Shakespeare is freely inventing the words in Henry’s mouth, nearly two centuries later.

But what words! Noting how outnumbered the English army is, the king’s cousin quite sensibly remarks that he wishes some of the men at home in England were here with them now. “What!” replies King Henry. On the contrary, having more soldiers would be a major disadvantage, because then the glory of the day would have to be divided more ways.

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’ …

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Second, the Charge of the Light Brigade during the battle of Balaklava, 1854. This was not a victory for the English, but a slaughter. Based on botched military intelligence, the commander of the British cavalry sent his men straight into the path of the heavily-armed Russian army. The Russians gunned them down easily, thinking they were probably drunk or crazy to attempt such a direct assault. But above the wasted lives, what stands out with astonishing clarity is the radical obedience and courage of the soldiers. And this is what poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson captured in his contemporary poem about the charge:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

There was a third major battle on October 25, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. It is far more epic in scope than Agincourt or Balaklava: Probably the largest naval battle that has ever been fought, it shut down the Japanese Imperial Navy. But it has not been the subject of poetry, to my knowledge. Get busy, ye poets of war!