Poetry and Prayer

Michaelmas 2012

Readings: Rev. 21: 1-5; Job 40:6-14.

[6] Then answered the LORD unto Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
[7] Gird up thy loins now like a man: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.
[8] Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?
[9] Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?
[10] Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty.
[11] Cast abroad the rage of thy wrath: and behold every one that is proud, and abase him.
[12] Look on every one that is proud, and bring him low; and tread down the wicked in their place.
[13] Hide them in the dust together; and bind their faces in secret.
[14] Then will I also confess unto thee that thine own right hand can save thee.

[1] And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
[2] And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
[3] And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
[4] And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
[5] And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.

‘Poetry and prayer’. What do we feel when we hear these two words put together? Perhaps we’re not at all surprised. Perhaps nothing feels more natural to us than to reach for poems in order to explore faith. And poems—which are only poems, after all—can usually be made to do this job pretty compliantly, to do it without raising too many awkward questions. What’s more, don’t poetry and prayer have quite a lot in common with each other? Both are famous, after all, for making nothing happen. And aren’t both, as we’re often told, matters of self-expression, of getting something off one’s chest? Insincere prayers, it’s sometimes thought, are like insincere poems. The folk theory that poems should express our feelings honestly isn’t so far, perhaps, from the doctrine that prayer needs no set forms, times and places, but may and even must be the direct and immediate appeal of the believer to her God.

    We have, at any rate, the authority of one of Shakespeare’s strongest villains for this. When Claudius tries to pray for forgiveness, for having murdered his brother, Hamlet’s father, he can get the words out alright; it’s just that they don’t make him think of anything in particular. The closing couplet seems to confirm Claudius’s view. That last rhyme fixes him in a tableau, named, illuminated, judged. ‘My words rise up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’

    It’s as though the fact that Claudius can take time to turn a rhyme on his own insincerity is part of what’s wrong with him. What sort of a person, after all, would pray in metre at all, let alone in rhyme? To add this little ornament, this jingle or jewel or this hook to what we say to God, as though we were, ludicrously, hoping to entice Him with our verbal music into listening to and granting our prayers? As the philosopher says, scorning epistemology, “if the Absolute is supposed merely to be brought nearer to us through this instrument, like a bird caught by a lime-twig, it would surely laugh our little ruse to scorn, if it were not with us, in and for itself, all along, and of its own volition.” We can imagine, at any rate, what Job’s faintly sarcastic God might say to this. “Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?”

    If we, today, sometimes think of poetry and prayer as relatively innocuous cultural goods of a roughly similar kind, this is not a view that would always and everywhere have seemed self-evident. Poets themselves, and especially Christian poets, have often understood the relationship between poetry and prayer as a troubling, even a contradictory or powerfully antagonistic one.  When Richard Crashaw died, Abraham Cowley hailed  him “Poet and saint!” but went on to call this “the hard and rarest union which can be/ Next that of godhead with humanity”. To manage to be poet and saint at once, Cowley thinks, is little less of a miracle than the Incarnation itself. But his reason for thinking so might surprise us. Cowley thinks that metrical composition itself continues to house pagan demons.

   Still the old heathen gods in numbers dwell,
The heavenliest thing on earth still keeps up Hell.
Nor have we yet quite purg’d the Christian land;
Still idols here like calves at Bethel stand.
And though Pan’s death long since all oracles broke,
Yet still in rhyme the fiend Apollo spoke . . .

Cowley’s Apollo is no pale bust, but a menacing and energetic “fiend”. And just to make sure we don’t think that all this is in the past, Cowley has his classical demon, anachronistically, speak in rhyme—as Cowley himself is doing just at this very moment. The Christian poet, for Cowley, is not really a purveyor of inoffensive uplift and general meditativeness,  but is something more like a walking, breathing, speaking oxymoron, one who must continously subdue those very demons which he would now compel to sing the psalms.

    Cowley’s acute sense of the power and danger of spoken rhythm is far distant from us, no doubt; but it is by no means heterodox. For Saint Jerome, in his twenty-second letter, the pleasures of measured speech were amongst the most stubborn temptations of the desert. Jerome recalls a familiar pattern of binging and purging—not on food or drink, but on classical rhetoric. “Many years ago, when for the kingdom of heaven’s sake I had cut myself off from home, parents, sister, relations, and—harder still—from the dainty food to which I had been accustomed; and when I was on my way to Jerusalem to wage my warfare, I still could not bring myself to forego the library which I had formed for myself at Rome with great care and toil. And so, miserable man that I was, I would fast only that I might afterwards read Cicero.” Jerome falls ill, and dreams that he is brought before God Himself. “Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: I am a Christian. But He who presided said: You are lying. You are not a Christian, but a Ciceronian.” The Christian poet, and the Christian orator, like saint and anchorite, build their cells and little stanzas next to the spring where the pagan god was thought to dwell. Our sacred English poems, like our cathedrals and our churches, stand on those sites where the furies are buried. T.S. Eliot was never a more Christian poet than when he had the Eumenides turn up at the family reunion.

    Why would you need to go to a particular place to pray, when God is everywhere? Why would you want to pray in rhythms and rhymes, when God dwells without exception in every tiniest particle of a second, and when He may hear even the forlornest little scrap of unornamented talk?  Perhaps just in so far as prayer is never all my own work, any more than poetry is. “Lord, teach us to pray, even as John taught his disciples.” We pray to be taught how to pray; we need God’s help even to know in just what words we should ask for it. The pagan forms themselves may come in aid of sacred speech; a rhyme or a tune may cross our mind with good news, just at the moment when that place might otherwise feel like the blankest tablet in the desert. How does the old rhyme go? Hagiasthétō to onomá sou : elthétō he basileía sou : genethetō  to thélemá sou : in other words, Blessed be thy name : thy kingdom come : thy will be done. Newman, trying to explain why set forms of prayer might be needed, even for praying in private, to explain why such forms might be, not an improper curb to spontaneous devotion, but a precious help in time of trouble, ended his meditation with this very prayer. “He gave the prayer and used it. His Apostles used it; all the Saints ever since have used it. When we use it we seem to join company with them. Who does not think himself brought nearer to any celebrated man in history, by seeing his house, or his furniture, or his handwriting, or the very books that were his? Thus does the Lord’s Prayer bring us near to Christ, and to His disciples in every age.” At those few moments when prayer and poetry, almost impossibly, come together, we can find ourselves caught up into an anamnesis, an unforgetting, in which my words do anything but express something peculiar to or singular with me, but in which I am instead spoken by those spiritual ancestors whose very words I take into my mouth. From just this venerable antiquity I may find out new heaven and new earth; a record of long pain and sorrow, but spoken in accents of the New Jerusalem. 

Lord Jesus Christ, you find already what we seek; you give already what we need;  you stand already where we fall. Grant that our failing speech may be filled with your truth and light, that we who stand in direst need of help may learn through you how to ask for it. Amen.