Prose from Poetry Magazine

That Highest Candle

A review of Harold Bloom’s American Religious Poems.

by Marilynne Robinson
American Religious Poems, ed. by Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba. The Library of America. $40.00.

This anthology appears at an interesting moment in cultural history. America is now widely considered to be the last bastion of religious belief in the developed world. Whether or not this is true—the influence of American culture on immigrants and on global culture is widely assumed to be secularizing—there are those who assign the failings of the country to its lapse from traditional religion, and there are those who assign our failings to the obdurate persistence of traditional religion. Of course the definitions of the words "American" and "religion" have been contested for centuries in the first case and millennia in the second. The two terms share the distinction of being in fact indefinable, and it would be greatly to our advantage to recognize this fact. One of the most powerful recurring impulses in history is the attempt to force definition on nation and faith, a dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that has cost the world dearly. When, as at present, this attempt seems to many people to be rational and necessary, especially in order to refute belief or in order to defend it, inward and highly individual experience becomes the subject of public debate and dispute, and is caricatured, grossly simplified, and falsified by those on every side of every issue.

Pressed in these contentious times to make the case that Abraham Lincoln was correct in believing our natures have better angels, I would look to our poets—Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, first of all, and then the powerful tradition influenced by their honesty and magnanimity. It is true of these two great voices that they test and reject existing definitions and evoke a reality whose mysterious power exceeds language. Whitman's nation was no nation in terms of the time in which he wrote. It had then, as it has now, no bond of blood, soil, or tongue to create in it the organic unity the theorists of nineteenth-century nationalism considered essential components of a legitimate national culture. Whitman's genius was to reject all that, to see a real America and to create a visionary America based squarely and exuberantly on ever-changing patterns of life and newer streams of population. Dickinson's poetry quietly presses every question religious belief might seem, to the hostile or the anxious, to preclude. If these are the two greatest American poets, as Harold Bloom and I and legions of other critics and writers and readers believe, then the classic achievement of our literature is an openness, intellectual and spiritual, that is utterly unlike the phenomenon of an "American religion" promoted by certain politicians and religionists and derided by Professor Bloom and many others. If American religion is narrow and unlikable, it is difficult to account for a book like this one, in which so many fine poets are represented.

Though doubt, alienation, and even parody are elements in some of these poems, the collection is quite appropriately aware that these all have reference to the field of thought and meaning ordinarily called religious. Any reader of Ecclesiastes or the Book of Job is aware that the canon of scripture has room for thought that can disrupt conventional assumptions about the nature of belief, whether these assumptions are held by the religious or by their critics. Indeed, religion is by nature restless with itself, impatient within the constraints of its own expression. When the fifteenth-century Zen monk Shumpo Soki writes at his death, "My sword leans against the sky./With its polished blade I'll behead/The Buddha and all of his saints," his meaning is not that he has rejected his belief but that he will move beyond the forms in which it has been known to him in life. In something of the same spirit, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as devout a man as the modern world has seen, longed for a "religionless Christianity." Any writer who has wearied of words knows the feeling of being limited by the very things that enable. To associate religion with unwavering faith in any creed or practice does no justice at all to its complexity as lived experience. Creeds themselves exist to stabilize the intense speculations that religion, which is always about the ultimate nature of things, will inspire.

Those who try to understand religion from an outsider's perspective share the tendency of anthropologists to mistake the limits of their own comprehension for a crudeness, a rudimentary character, in what they observe. Anthropologists now acknowledge this error, if they have not yet learned to avoid it. Those who look from the outside at religion, however, still occupy precisely, and intentionally, the posture of the European Enlightenment, priding themselves on their exasperation at finding the natives so intractably primitive. It is important to remember that religious thought has had brilliant expression throughout world culture, and that the idea of the sacred has refined the sense of the beautiful in every civilization. The very narrow sense in which the word is understood in the public conversation in contemporary America—again, by many of its proponents and defenders as well as by its critics—distracts from the profound resonances of religion throughout history. An afternoon with the Vedas, an evening with The Drowned Book, another look at the Oresteia or the Psalms or at Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address would be more than sufficient to recall us all to a recognition of the fact that the Pat Robertsons and the Pat Buchanans of our moment do not epitomize religion. This anthology of American religious poetry serves to underscore the point.

There is every reason to turn to poetry in order to acquire a sense of the nature of religion. The two seem always to have been intimately linked. This deep and ancient affinity cannot be accidental. One does not "understand" what Aeschylus or Isaiah wrote, because poetry is not, in the ordinary sense, "understood." If it is great, it is lived with over time by individuals and civilizations, interpreted again and again in its impact on language and thought and the arts, and on all those souls who are sensitive to its pleasures and sufficiencies. In just the same way, religion is not to be "understood."

Again, poetry is best interpreted by poetry. William Carlos Williams tells us vastly more about Walt Whitman than the whole tribe of his critics and biographers can hope to tell us. Whitman made Emerson far greater than Emerson was on his own. Perhaps Sophocles did as much for Homer. Likewise, to the exasperation of those rationalists who wish they would just say what they mean, religions interpret themselves in religious terms. If the Gospel of Luke doesn't make sense to you, Augustine and Luther won't either. Those who look into this anthology are likelier than others to have some experience of poetry and to recognize the inadequacies of interpretation and paraphrase. But religion, not only in America, has been seriously distracted by the supposed need to translate itself into terms a rationalist would find meaningful. So liberals have set out upon a long, earnest project more or less equivalent to rewriting Shakespeare into words of one syllable—if such a thing can be imagined as an effort fired by moral passion and carried out by people who would themselves confess to a deep affection for Shakespeare. Fundamentalists have responded with a furious rejection of the very thought that the Bible might operate at the level of poetry, which amounts to a literalist insistence that the text is already available to understanding in the rationalists' own terms and which yields endless futile controversy, notably about creation. This collaboration of supposed antagonists, liberals, and fundamentalists has meant that, for the moment, religion and poetry seem alien to one another as, historically, they have never been.

But the problem of paraphrase is deeper yet. Anyone, asked to give an account of her or his deepest beliefs, will experience embarrassment and difficulty. This is true because of the way belief lives in experience. By analogy, it is impossible to know how many nuances and associations a given word has until they are discovered in the use of the word, or in the recognition of a novel inflection given the word by another speaker. Even the most familiar words exist in us in a field of potentiality to which paraphrase can never be adequate. What but poetry could arrive at Wallace Stevens's phrase, "the the"? On the same grounds, the expectation that a straightforward account can be made of any system of belief is naive, and attempts to accommodate the expectation are also naive. This is not to say that religion is closed against the inquirer. No more is poetry. However, like mathematics and music, they must be approached in terms that are appropriate to them. If the individualism and pluralism of American culture have indeed been especially friendly to the flourishing of religion, perhaps this is true because they discourage blanket statements about religious belief, which are always inadequate and disheartening.

True to the spirit of Whitman, this anthology includes poets of Arabic, Asian, and Native American heritage, as well as the lyrics of a few of the African-American spirituals and gospel songs that are perhaps the most profound widely-known poetry in the language. It is no criticism to say that the disparate character of these poems makes attention to them difficult in the space of even a lengthy review. I feel somewhat justified in addressing primarily the tradition associated with Whitman and Dickinson because, despite the editors' efforts to move outside the canon and to include the diverse and, to some degree, the popular voices in whose company the canonical writers would have been happy to find themselves, in such a slender collection what is diverse is inevitably diffuse and difficult to place in interpretive context.

Also, there is a conventional cultural narrative implicit in this anthology which is important enough to merit comment. The earlier selections seem chosen to exemplify a pietistic earlier America, too frozen in the glaciers of Puritanism to eke out more than didactic and funerary poems and rhymed translations of the psalms. Then a thaw begins, Emerson arises, then Whitman, and after them the full summer of American poetic achievement.

The first poems included are two psalms from The Bay Psalm Book. These translations were the work of a committee of learned clergy who acknowledged in a preface that their insistence on accuracy came at serious cost to their poetry. Mindful of biblical practice, they intended the psalms to be sung by congregations. In rhyming them, they accommodated the translations, as lyrics, to the expectations of English people, again at acknowledged cost to the poetry. Subsequent editions of The Bay Psalm Book attempted improvements. So, granting the historical interest of the book, it seems a less than suitable example of poetic standards, American or English, even in the minds of the translators and their contemporaries. Elegies present another problem. They tend to be expressions of pious assurance and are therefore religious poetry, but they are for the same reason unlikely to push beyond conventional sentiment—that is, to be good religious poetry.

The impression created by these choices is the usual one, of persons stunned by dogma and dislocation, groping their way back toward some small competence in the arts of civilization. But Rufus Griswold's two hefty anthologies, Poets and Poetry of America (1842) and Female Poets of America (1849), which also begin at the start of settlement, and which passed through seventeen editions in the first instance and six in the second, are proof that, if America before Whitman produced little in the way of poetry, it was certainly not for want of trying. Nor was it for want of learnedness or lofty aspirations. The biographical and critical remarks with which Griswold introduces each of these poets are, in many cases, reverential. They reflect the belief of the time that a great and distinctive poetry is the sign and seal of nationhood, a status to which Americans felt their claims were tenuous. This anxiety is palpable in much of the poetry. But some of the poetry is accomplished and rather pretty. In any case, these volumes, which are direct ancestors of the anthology under review, demonstrate an intense interest in poetry and only too great an awareness of the conventions of contemporaneous English verse.

Those who concern themselves with American culture often write as if it were a separate creation, as if its earliest ancestors were engendered by the action of sunlight on the muddy beaches of Plymouth Bay. In fact the Pilgrims and then the Puritans washed up here as a direct though marginal consequence of the intellectual, political, and religious controversies that had roiled Europe for more than a century. So far from being displaced and therefore cultureless, they themselves and others like them had a well-established history of emigrating when necessary in order to preserve and develop their culture. They were simply an early instance of a frequently recurring pattern, the peopling of North America by groups who accept the rigors of emigration precisely because their attachment to their religion and culture is powerful. That this particular clutch of malnourished English people so quickly set about acquiring a printing press and founding a college is a pure expression of the potency of the faith and world view they brought with them. Theirs was an intensely bookish culture, and the books that were important to them are important to what has become American religious poetry, especially insofar as it descends from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

The preeminent theologian of Puritanism was a Renaissance humanist who was unique in the centrality his theology gave to an exalted view of humankind. In his most influential work he wrote:

the human body shows itself to be a composition so ingenious that its Artificer is rightly judged a wonder-worker....Certain philosophers, accordingly, long ago not ineptly called man a microcosm because he is a rare example of God's power, goodness, and wisdom, and contains within himself enough miracles to occupy our minds, if only we are not irked at paying attention to them....For each one undoubtedly feels within the heavenly grace that quickens him. Indeed, if there is no need to go outside ourselves to comprehend God, what pardon will the indolence of that man deserve who is loath to descend within himself to find God?...such agile motions of the soul, such excellent faculties, such rare gifts, especially bear upon the face of them a divinity that does not allow itself readily to be hidden....Manifold indeed is the nimbleness of the soul with which it surveys heaven and earth, joins past to future, retains in memory something heard long before, nay, pictures to itself whatever it pleases. Manifold also is the skill with which it devises things incredible, and which is the mother of so many marvelous devices. These are unfailing signs of divinity in man.


These are the words of Jean Calvin, from book one of his most famous and available work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This ecstatic delight in the human mind and person is a constant in his metaphysics, a Christian anthropology clearly akin to the celebrations of the human one finds in Emerson and Whitman, clearly anticipating Dickinson in its assurance of the revelatory character of deeply inward experience. In an early sermon, Emerson speaks of a culmination of life:

when this planet we now inhabit shall have been swept from its system, and its system is no longer reckoned in the astronomy of the Universe; when the fires that now roll in these heavens above us, have combined in new constellations, or obey new laws; or when, by that dread will which peopled eternal space with their burning hosts, they shall disappear; when God shall be all; when you shall be nourishing the powers of an angel's intellect, and exploring the height and depth and length and breadth of the wisdom of the knowledge of God.


The thrill of imagining consciousness freed of limitation may have been the impetus that moved Emerson to reject the church, but it is nevertheless an impetus he could have taken from that same religious tradition.

In celebrating the body and the mind, and the experience of them both in life on earth, Calvin erased the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Just as Augustine and Aquinas appropriated the pagan philosophers for the purposes of their theologies, Calvin appropriated the secularizing tendencies of Renaissance thought for his. Any definition of religion that assumes an opposition of religion to secularism is therefore misleading. For Calvin the experience of the godlike self is the full experience of civilization and of consciousness. All this is worth pointing out because it rescues early and formative American thought from the odd little narrative that it fledged out of the unpromising husk of a cranky primitivism, and that it is at its best a rejection of a minor tradition rather than a new variant on a great tradition. Major American poetry is the best philosophy ever written on this continent, and with good reason.

Given all this, Harold Bloom's introduction to American Religious Poems seems at odds with its content. He takes the view that there is a sui generis American religion which bears no relation to religion elsewhere and which is obdurately simpleminded. Yet most American poets who are held in high regard are represented here, and there is a preponderance of modern and contemporary poetry. In other words, aside from the rather perfunctory selection of early writing and a few songs and hymns that seem to have been chosen for their familiarity rather than for their interest as poetry, most of the work collected here is thoughtful and sophisticated by any standard. Much of it would seem "religious" only in a context that encouraged the reader to consider it in this light. Yet in this light it is indeed religious.

The threshold between the life we know and whatever follows is a mystery religion has always addressed, and for which it has tended to provide the imagination with language and imagery. Dante and Milton created grand visions of a cosmos ordered to serve the ends of divine justice. But there is strikingly little interest among American poets in mapping the terrain of heaven and hell. In place of mythopoesis, their attention is turned on the actual, the phenomenal. And it is turned on the universal, solitary, subjective experience of the transformation, or the end, of consciousness. If death is the mother of beauty, it is the mother also of the deepest self-awareness, the consciousness of the nerves and senses that translate experience as beauty, and as meaning.

American poets often reinterpret the old Puritan practice of finding "types" in nature and experience, "Shadows of Divine Things," as Jonathan Edwards called them. This form of typology is no longer theologically respectable, but something very like it has been and is at the center of American poetry, because it is the assimilation of perception to meaning or speculative interpretation—in Stevens's phrase, the mind in the act of finding what will suffice. It is typology rather than metaphor because it attempts not to evoke reality but instead to penetrate it, or to know more deeply the fact of its inaccessibility. Whitman describes how a spider, "to explore the vacant vast surrounding,/...launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself." So the soul will muse ceaselessly "Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere." His contemplation of the spider is itself a gossamer thread, a speculation on the mysterious relationship between the fallible and continuous inquiries of perception and whatever would constitute knowing. "We say God and the imagination are one.../How high that highest candle lights the dark." These are the words of Stevens's "interior paramour," the companion self that is the creature of meditative self-awareness. Robinson Jeffers writes in fiercer terms of a perceived affinity of the divine and the human:

Unmeasured power, incredible passion, enormous craft:
no thought apparent but burns darkly
Smothered with its own smoke in the human
brain-vault: no thought outside: a certain measure
in phenomena:
The fountains of the boiling stars, the flowers on the
foreland, the ever-returning roses of dawn.


Fountains and roses: the mind in the act of knowing as it can know, with every ambiguity intended; the mind as imagination.

If there is a single subject upon which the gaze of the major Americans has been fixed since Whitman and Dickinson, it is surely human mortality, consciousness thrown into sharp relief by the fact that consciousness as we know it will cease. Perhaps it will indeed shed its earthly limitations and acquire the powers of an angel's intellect, as Emerson said, and perhaps it will simply pass beyond the competence of faith or speculation into the unimaginable condition of non-being. Among contemporary poets, Li-Young Lee, addressing himself in "Night Mirror," says, "Time is the salty wake/of your stunned entrance upon/no name," and Carl Phillips writes:

his body became rigid with what I believe
was not the stiffening of death
but of surprise, the initial
unbelief of the suddenly ex-slave hearing
Rest; let it fall now, this burden.


Whether mortality is considered in terms of what consciousness might become once restored to its fullness and brilliance, or mortality is considered in light of the radiance and singularity of consciousness over against an insentience from which it proceeds and toward which it tends, a calm and metaphysical acknowledgment of death is the backdrop for the exploration of the brief, splendid, numinous, electrical fact of human being and of being itself. This pattern goes back at least to William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis." It pervades the poetry of Emily Dickinson. And Walt Whitman's grass is the grass of graves, and his earth, like Bryant's, is both grand and companionable by grace of the transient generations that slumber in it. Again, the insistent valuing of the living world in the fact of its mortality is an assertion of the imagination to know more than can be known. The sense of the gorgeous dignity of the dying hawk in Jeffers's "Hurt Hawks" builds by a strictly imaginative necessity to the poem's concluding lines:

but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded
river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.


This is only one theme in American religious poetry, but it is insistent and distinctive enough to make the case that it is a tradition that profoundly honors both the world and the mind, as well as the cryptic and volatile ligatures of thought that run between them.
Originally Published: May 23, 2007

COMMENTS (1)

On July 12, 2009 at 3:41pm Elizabeth Rubio wrote:
Thank you for your insightful article, which is, for myself, not so much a review of Bloom's book as a review of the thread of Americans' reflection on matters deeply spiritual throughout our experience, as expressed in our poetry. I enjoyed it very much. I will mostly likely now look for "American Religious Poems."

POST A COMMENT

Poetryfoundation.org welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This prose originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

May 2007

Related

Books

Biography

Born in Sandpoint, Idaho, novelist and nonfiction writer Marilynne Robinson received a BA from Brown University and a PhD from the University of Washington. Her first novel, Housekeeping (1980), won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In a New York Times review, Anatole Broyard noted, “It’s as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.