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Religion and Poetry

Written by: Washington Gladden

The time is not long past when the copulative in that title might have suggested to some minds an antithesis,—as acid and alkali, or heat and cold. That religion could have affiliation with anything so worldly as poetry would have seemed to some pious people a questionable proposition. There were the Psalms, in the Old Testament, to be sure; and the minister had been heard to allude to them as poetry: might not that indicate some heretical taint in him, caught, perchance, from the "German neologists" whose influence we were beginning to dread? It did not seem quite orthodox to describe the Psalms as poems; and when, a little later, some one ventured to speak of the Book of Job as a dramatic poem, there were many who were simply horrified. Indeed, it was difficult for many good people to consider the Biblical writings as in any sense literature; they belonged in a category by themselves, and the application to them of the terms by which we describe similar writings in other books appeared to many good men and women a kind of profanation. This was not, of course, the attitude of educated men and women, but something akin to it affected large numbers of excellent people.

We are well past that period, and the relations of religion and poetry may now be discussed with no fear of misunderstandings. These relations are close and vital. Poetry is indebted to religion for its largest and loftiest inspirations, and religion is indebted to poetry for its subtlest and most luminous interpretations.

Religion is related to poetry as life is related to art. Religion is life, the life of God in the soul of man—the response of man's spirit to the attractions of the divine Spirit. Poetry is an interpretation of life. Religious poetry endeavors to express, in beautiful forms, the facts of the religious life. There is poetry that is not religious; poetry which deals only with that which is purely sensuous, poetry which does not hint at spiritual facts, or divine relations; and there is religion which has but little to do with poetry: but the highest religious thoughts and feelings are greatly served by putting them into poetic forms; and the greatest poetry is always that which sets forth the facts of the religious life. "Without love to man and love to God," says Dr. Strong, "the greatest poetry is impossible. Mere human love to God is not enough to stir the deepest chords either in the poet or in his readers. It is the connection of human love with the divine love that gives it permanence and security."[A]

If, then, religion is the supreme experience of the human spirit, and that experience finds its most perfect literary expression in poetry, the present volume ought to contain a precious collection of the best literature. And any one who wished to give to a friend a volume which would convey to him the essential elements of religion would probably be safe to choose this volume rather than any prose treatise upon theology ever printed. He who reads this book through will get a clearer and truer idea of what the religious life is than any philosophical discussion could give him. For this poetry is an attempt to express life, not to explain it. It offers pictures or reports rather than analyses of religious experience. It gives utterance to the real life of religion in the individual soul, and is not a generalization of religious thoughts and feelings.

The sources from which this collection has been drawn are abundant and varied. The psalmody and hymnology of the church furnish a vast preserve, the exploration of which would be a large undertaking. It must be confessed that the pious people who had in their hands some of the ancient hymn-books were justified in feeling that religion and poetry were not closely related, for many of the hymns they were wont to sing were guiltless of any poetic character. It was too often evident that the hymn-writer had been more intent on giving metrical form to proper theological concepts than on giving utterance to his own religious life. But the feeling has been growing that in hymns, at any rate, life is more than dogma; and we have now some collections of hymns that come pretty near being books of poetry. The improvement in this department of literature within the past twenty-five years has been marked. There is still, indeed, in many hymnals, and especially in hymnals for Sunday schools and social meetings, much doggerel; but large recent contributions of hymns which are true poetry, many of the best of them from American sources, have made it possible to furnish our congregations with admirable manuals of praise.

The indebtedness of religion to poetry which is thus expressed in the hymnology of the church is very large. Probably many of us are indebted for definite and permanent religious conceptions and impressions quite as much to felicitous phrases of hymns as to any words of sermon or catechism. Our most positive convictions of religious truth are apt to come to us in some line or stanza that tells the whole story. The rhythm and the rhyme have helped to fix it and hold it in the memory.

This is true not only of the hymns of the church but of many poems that are not suitable for singing. English poetry is especially rich in meditative and devotional elements, and of no period has this been more true than of the nineteenth century. Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge, the Brownings, Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, on the other side of the sea, with Bryant, Longfellow, Emerson, Whittier, Lowell, Holmes, Lanier, Sill and Gilder on this side—these and many others—have made most precious additions to our store of religious poetry. The century has been one of great perturbations in religious thought; the advent of the evolutionary philosophy threatened all the theological foundations, and there was need of a thorough revision of the dogmas which were based on a mechanical theology, and of a reinterpretation of the life of the Spirit. In all this the poets have given us the strongest help. The great poet cannot be oblivious of these deepest themes. He need not be a dogmatician, indeed he cannot be, for his business is insight, not ratiocination; but the problems which theology is trying to solve must always be before his mind, and he must have something to say about them, if he hopes to command the attention of thoughtful men. Yet while we need not depreciate the service that has been rendered by preachers and professional theologians who have sought to put the facts of the religious life into the forms of the new philosophy, we must own our deeper obligation to the poets, by whose vision the spiritual realities have been most clearly discerned.

It was Wordsworth, perhaps, who gave us the first great contribution to the new religious thought by bringing home to us the fact that God is in his world; revealing himself now as clearly as in any of the past ages. The truth of the Divine immanence, which is the foundation of all the more positive religious thinking of to-day, and which is destined, when once its import has been fully grasped, to revolutionize our religious life, is made familiar to our thought in Wordsworth's poetry. To him it was simply an experience; in quite another sense than that in which it was true of Spinoza, it might have been said of him that he was a "God-intoxicated man"; and although his clear English sense permitted no pantheistic merging of the human in the divine, but kept the individual consciousness clear for choice and duty, the realization of the presence of God made nature in his thought supernatural, and life sublime. To him, as Dr. Strong has said, it was plain that "imagination in man enables him to enter into the thought of God—the creative element in us is the medium through which we perceive the meaning of the Creator in his creation. The world without answers to the world within, because God is the soul of both."

  "Such minds are truly from the Deity,
  For they are Powers; and hence the highest bliss
  That flesh can know is theirs,—the consciousness
  Of whom they are, habitually infused
  Through every image and through every thought,
  And all affections by communion raised
  From earth to heaven, from human to divine."

The mystical faith by which man is united to God can have no clearer confession. And in the great poem of "Tintern Abbey" this truth received an expression which has become classical;—it must be counted one of the greatest words of that continuing revelation by which the truths of religion are given permanent form:

      "For I have learned
  To look on nature, not as in the hour
  Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
  The still, sad music of humanity,
  Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
  To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
  A presence that disturbs me with the joy
  Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
  Of something far more deeply interfused,
  Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
  And the round ocean, and the living air,
  And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
  A motion and a spirit, that impels
  All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
  And rolls through all things."

We can hardly imagine that the religious experience of mankind will ever suffer these words to drop into forgetfulness; and it would seem that every passing generation must deepen their significance.

The same great testimony to the divine Presence in our lives is borne by many other witnesses in memorable words. Lowell's voice is clear:

  "No man can think, nor in himself perceive,
  Sometimes at waking, in the street sometimes,
  Or on the hillside, always unforwarned,
  A grace of being finer than himself,
  That beckons and is gone,—a larger life
  Upon his own impinging, with swift glimpse
  Of spacious circles, luminous with mind,
  To which the ethereal substance of his own
  Seems but gross cloud to make that visible,
  Touched to a sudden glory round the edge."

If to this central truth of religion,—the reality of the communion of the human spirit with the divine—the poets have borne such impressive testimony, not less positively have they asserted many other of the great things of the spirit. Sometimes they have helped us to believe, by identifying themselves with us in our struggles with the doubts that loosen our hold on the great realities. No man of the last century has done more for Christian belief than Alfred Tennyson, albeit he has been a confessed doubter. But what he said of Arthur Hallam is quite as true of himself:

  "He fought his doubts, and gathered strength,
    He would not make his judgment blind,
    He faced the spectres of the mind
  And laid them; thus he came at length,

  To find a stronger faith his own,
    And Power was with him in the night,
    Which makes the darkness and the light,
  And dwells not in the light alone."

Those words of his, so often quoted, are often sadly misused:

  "There lives more faith in honest doubt,
  Believe me, than in half the creeds."

When men make these words an excuse for an attitude of habitual negation and denial, assuming that it is better to doubt everything than to believe anything, they grossly pervert the poet's meaning. It is the faith that lives in honest doubt that his heart applauds. He is thinking of the fact that it is real faith in God which leads men to doubt the dogmas which misrepresent God. But conscious as he is of the shadow that lies upon our field of vision, he is always insisting that it is in the light and not in the shadow that we must walk. Therefore, although demonstration is impossible, faith is rational. So do those great words of "The Ancient Sage" admonish us:

  "Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
  Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,
  Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one.
  Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no,
  Nor yet that thou art mortal—nay, my son.
  Thou canst not prove that I who speak with thee,
  Am not thyself in converse with thyself,
  For nothing worthy proving can be proven
  Nor yet disproven. Wherefore be thou wise,
  Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,
  And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith!
  She reels not in the storm of warring words,
  She brightens at the clash of 'Yes' and 'No,'
  She sees the best that glimmers through the worst,
  She feels the sun is hid but for a night,
  She spies the summer through the winter bud,
  She tastes the fruit before the blossom falls,
  She hears the lark within the songless egg,
  She finds the fountain where they wailed 'Mirage!'"

This illustrates Tennyson's mental attitude. If all who plume themselves upon their doubts would put themselves into this posture of mind, they would find themselves in possession of a very substantial faith.

Tennyson has touched with light more than one problem of the soul. The little stanza beginning

"Flower in the crannied wall"

has shown us how the mysteries of being are shared by the commonest lives; the short lyric "Wages" condenses into a few lines the strongest proof of the life to come; and "Crossing the Bar" has borne many a spirit in peace out to the boundless sea.

Robert Browning's robust faith helps us in a different way. His daring and triumphant optimism makes us ashamed of doubt. In "Abt Vogler," in "Rabbi Ben Ezra," in "Pompilia," in "Christmas Eve," we are caught up and carried onward by an unflinching and overcoming faith. Perhaps the most convincing arguments for religious reality in Browning's poems are those of "An Epistle" and of "Cleon," where the cry of the human soul for the assurance which the Christian faith supplies is given such a penetrating voice. And there is no reasoning about the Incarnation, in any theological book that I have ever read, which seems to me so cogent as that great passage in "Saul," where David cries:

  "Could I wrestle to raise him from sorrow, grow poor to enrich,
  To fill up his life, starve my own out. I would—knowing which,
  I know that my service is perfect. Oh, speak through me now!
  Would I suffer for him that I love? So wouldst thou—so wilt thou!"

But, after all, Browning's great hymns of faith are those in which he faces the future, like "Prospice," and the prologue of "La Saisiaz," and the epilogue of "Asolando,"—triumphant songs, in which one of the healthiest-minded of human beings showed himself:

  "One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
  Never doubted clouds would break,
  Never dreamed though right were worsted wrong would triumph,
  Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, sleep to wake!"

It would be a grateful task to make extended record of the service rendered to religion by the great choir of singers whose names appear upon the pages of this book. To Elizabeth Barrett Browning our debt is large, though her note is oftenest plaintive and the faith which she illustrates is that by which suffering is turned to strength. Our own New England psalmist, also, has been to great multitudes a revealer and a comforter; few in any age have seen the central truths of Christianity more clearly, or felt them more deeply, or uttered them more convincingly. In such poems as "My Soul and I," "My Psalm," "Our Master," "The Eternal Goodness," "The Brewing of Soma," and "Andrew Ryckman's Prayer," Whittier has made the whole religious world his debtor.

How many more there are—of those whom the world reckons as the greater bards, and of those whom it assigns to lower places—to whom we have found ourselves indebted for the clearing of our vision or the quickening of our pulses, in our studies or our meditations upon the deepest questions of life! How many there are, whose faces we never saw, but who by some luminous word, some strain vibrant with tenderness, some flash of insight, have endeared themselves to us forever! They are the friends of our spirits, ministers to us of the holiest things. They have clothed for us the highest truth in forms of beauty; they have made it winsome and real and dear and memorable. Is there anything better than this, that one man can do for another?

Washington Gladden




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