Madeleine L’Engle and the Poetry of Us

by Alana Roberts

Madeleine L’Engle as a poet doesn’t muddle herself into blah, kneel to politics, or contemplate evil. Yet she will never be considered by such as Harold Bloom to be a first-rate or canonical poet. For one thing, her poetry is flawed. It has virtues, but flaws as well. Not all her word choices are the inevitable choices. In fact, she once began a line with the term, “Aaaaaaargh!” (Perhaps there was an ‘a’ or two more; please don’t make me count!)

These flaws are probably present because, when it came to writing poetry, L’Engle’s method of composition was, scandalously, the irreverent one-off, as she tells her reader in a 1996 Mars Hill Review interview:

ML: Poetry is very different. I’ve written very little poetry since my husband died. Last summer I was traveling in Ireland and Scotland, and I wrote twelve sonnets. They just flowed out. With a novel, I can sit down and write deliberately, but poetry sort of has to come to me. I’m not a terribly good poet.

MHR: How would you define a good poet?

ML: Most of my real poet friends putter around with each poem for weeks on end. I don’t do that. When I write a poem, I just leave it there. If I’ve written a poem, I’ve written a poem.

L’Engle is, of course, best known for her book-length children’s stories in which the science of the modern age turns out to be just another view of the glory of God, and children who love both science and the Lord have mystical-scientific experiences. I’m not trying to be dismissive. Science and the problem of evil—weren’t these the main challenges to poetry in the 20th century? She used fiction to help her readers imagine a way of living that many of us have dimly dreamed of—in which the seemingly competing and conflicting authorities of the old and new world merge, when rightly understood, into a single luminescent meaningful truth. The wife of a playwright and actor, Madeleine has, in her Time Quartet and elsewhere, written the Drama of Us.

I recently read an adult novel of hers that has nothing to do with science whatsoever. Love Letters is a book about two women—one, a wife, and the other, a nun—who love truly but unwisely, who are damaged in the experience, and who struggle through painful desperation to a transformed will that allows them to go on loving. This novel is more predictive of the subject matter of L’Engle’s poetry than the children’s stories are. Hardly naive, hardly tripping about a perennial spring-time world of the imagination in rose-colored glasses, L’Engle is painfully aware of the questions that have polluted the poetic well.

Her poetry is collected in a single volume, called The Ordering of Love. The title is taken from a line in one of her poems—and I feel almost certain that this vision of “ordered love” was a conscious distinction to the “free love”—the disordered love, in fact—of the sexual revolution going on around her.

For Madeleine, ordered love was more passionate than dissipated love could ever be. In one poem, she pictures herself at the hospital bedside of her dying husband. “This, too, is passion,” she says, referring to the restraint with which she touches his wrist as lightly as possible to avoid causing him more pain than he is already going through.

(Is this a deeper, more mature echo of John Keat’s prayer of romantic restraint?

O let me for one moment touch her wrist
Let me one moment to her breathing list;
And as she leaves me may she often turn
Her fair eyes looking through her locks auburne

Or do cultured minds find the patterns, the tracks in the road, not knowing who left them?)


This, too, is passion, the so gentle touch
Of fingertip to wrist, to shoulder, face.
More would cause pain, and oh I would not such
Anguish awake, I sit here in my place
Beside this strange white bed, with IV poles
Holding snaked lines that feed into your arms.
A limbo, this, a waiting room for souls
Ready to leave the flesh with all its charms—
And I am still in thrall to human love,
To touch, to whisper, bring from you a smile.
Passion remains. What am I thinking of?
How can I let it go? Hold on a while.
But oh, my love, must I now love you so
That my love’s passion has to let you go?

Coherent thought—the hallmark of the Christian mentality (which, after all, fostered science)—is also characteristic of L’Engle’s poetry. She has no existential fault lines to reflect in jagged phrases and interrupted syntax. Her mental scrapbook held no black armband left over from God’s funeral for she was not a mourner at that event—the world, in her imagination, was wounded to the quick, but it was still, from top to bottom, whole.

Nor was she a deeply subtle writer, like Charles Williams (whose poetry is often so obscure that readers are advised to read for the joy of the words and not worry too much, at first, about understanding it). There’s little to nothing in L’Engle you won’t understand. She never claims a place among the innovators, the stars, or the monoliths of English literature. She is simply doing what those innovators, stars, and monoliths have made possible—talking to us in poetry; communicating in a way that is not limited by the tendencies of prose. Being a little more human for it.

Many of her poems are biblical dramas—fictionification of stories and characters from the Bible. In these little poetic dramas, she doesn’t venerate the biblical saints—there’s another place and time for that. Instead, she renders them as one of ourselves—people trying to believe in God in the face of evil or cultural unbelief. Perhaps the best example of this kind of poem is her little gem about Jephthah’s daughter—who, scandalously, was sacrificed to Israel’s God when her father swore an oath that the first person he met coming from his house on return from battle would die in the Lord’s honor. How many of you fathers have returned home from work to see your delighted children flying out the door to greet you? Is there anything better? False religiosity pollute that?—how can it be borne?

Madeleine doesn’t turn the page of her Bible to seek a more amenable subject for her poem:

Take me beyond the grasp of nights and days.
Death leads me on to neither time, nor place.
Even in the dark can come El’s grace.
Oh, God. Oh, El. The darkness, El, the cold
between the stars. There’s nothing here to hold.
So am I dead? This endless silence roars
and flings me with the tide on golden shores.
Who is this man, here, eating fish, and bread?
How can I see and hear him, being dead? 
He hands me broken bread and I am broken.
I do not understand the word that he has spoken.
But he is waiting for me, bright as a star.
“It’s all right, child,” he says. “You are. You are.”

Ah. Maybe there’s something of the Time Quartet author there, after all.

Not all her struggling-faith poems are fictional, either. Sometimes she addresses directly her own struggle.

Nietzsche and Marx—and more recently, Barack Obama and scads of snarky anonymous internet commentators—assure us that we are religious merely as a way of coping with a reality we can’t handle. It’s just our pain drug. (They do not understand the positive attraction—the irreplaceable joy—of worship.) Madeleine tells a different story—the story we all know from inside the believing experience. Here, though we do not contemplate evil and we try not to incorporate its vagaries into our own life-systems, our very sensitivity to goodness renders us excruciatingly sensitive to evil, as well.  No less than Adorno, we are struck time and again with the sheer incongruity, the antithesis between kindliness and suffering, between comfort and pain, between giving and stealing, prosperity and want, joy and grief, agony and bliss. The good, one feels, needs to be very good indeed. And sometimes when one looks at the bad—

“It would be easier to be an atheist; it is the simple way out.”

The poem is “Pharoah’s Cross.” The poem’s persona is, more or less, Madeleine.

“Who is this wild cherubim who whirls the flaming sword / ‘twixt the door to the house of atheism and me?”

Next she describes God, using the words of Exodus, sending evil angels, killing Egyptians, hardening Pharaoh’s heart to keep him from repenting. (“This worries me, Lord.”) But she turns back from this kind of musing to a more twentieth-century way of thinking about it all (and why not? Modernity is our time, too. Let there be a modern Christianity as well as an ancient and a medieval Christianity).

All these things are but stories told about you by fallen man,
Part of the story (for your ways are not our ways)
But not the whole story. You are our author …

And winds up,

… you came to us as one of us
And lived with us and died for us and descended
Into hell for us
And burst out into life for us:
Do you now hold Pharaoh in your arms?

Where philosophy stops short of an answer, Christ remembered stands in the gap.

The writing fails to be thoroughly poetic or original. That bit about God’s ways not being our ways has done a lot of duty and stretched to cover a lot of broken windows in the house of faith. But the poem is not exactly meant as an answer, either—it’s versified drama, a portrayal of the search for the answer. It’s exactly like the sort of stab we take at the problem—the stab that embodies the faith we feel and the vagueness of our unschooled attempts to clothe that inner movement in words. It’s the Poetry of Us.

And like us, it was not Madeleine L’Engle’s destiny to be beaten down by evil to the point that she could no longer rejoice in goodness. In one poem she mourns the suffering:

I cannot pray for all the little ones with bellies bloated by starvation in India;
for all the angry Africans striving to be separate in a world struggling for wholeness;
for all the young Chinese men and women taught that hatred and killing are good and compassion evil;
or even all the frightened people in my own city looking for truth in pot or acid.
Here I am
and the ugly man with beery breath beside me reminds me that it is not my
prayers that waken your concern, my Lord;
my prayers, my intercessions are not to ask for your love
for all your lost and lonely ones,
your sick and sinning souls,
but mine, my love, my acceptance of your love.

Your love for the woman sticking her umbrella and her expensive parcels into my ribs and snarling, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
Your love for the long-haired, gum-chewing boy who shoves the old lady aside to grab a seat,
Your love for me, too, too tired to look with love,
too tired to look at Love, at you, in every person on the bus. 
Expand my love, Lord, so I can help to bear the pain.

But she responds with a seeking for love, not a bitter shrug or raging or sneering at the life that dares to go on living while others suffer.

And in another poem, her rising contemplation of time and its mysteries in the light of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection bestows on her a Christmas innocence that can only be expressed in delighted rhymes that fly thick and fast, in a merry brief meter that skips and runs:


Let us view with joy and mirth
All the clocks upon the earth
Holding time with busy tocking
Ticking booming clanging clocking
Anxiously unraveling 
Time’s traveling
Through the stars and winds and tides.
Who can tell where time abides?
Foolish clocks, all time was broken
When that first great Word was spoken.
Cease we now this silly fleeing
From earth’s time, for time’s a being
And adoring 
Bows before him
 Who upon the throne is seated.
Time, defeated, wins, is greeted.
Clocks know not time’s loving wonder
Day above as night swings under,
Turning always to the son,
Time’s begun, is done, does run
Singing warning 
Of the morning
Time, mass, space, a mystery 
Of eternal trinity.
Time needs make no poor apology
For bursting forth from man’s chronology
Laughs in glee as human hours
Dance before the heavenly powers.
Time’s undone
Because the Son
Swiftly calls the coming light
That will end the far-spent night.

When you pay attention to the ideas, to the invocations, there’s a window to heaven there. Time as a being who is joyfully mastered by Christ—what a wonderful mythopoeic idea.

When you pay attention to the meter, on the other hand, you find many occasions of thickness where there ought to be thinness, and vice versa. The rhyme of “apology” and “chronology” is a particularly objectionable stumble in the meter. Yet the poem without those words would be impoverished. I call such dilemmas “bright blots.” Blots have to be evaluated in light of the surrounding virtues in a poem.

A poem that is all blots becomes tedious.

But many critics of poetry, needing to fill out their repertoire of condemnation in order to demonstrate their subtle and discriminating perception, have a no-tolerance policy for bright blots. It amounts to a sentence of annihilation for the poet, as poet, who is less than perfect (or a seeming proof that most people simply shouldn’t attempt meter and rhyme).

All that beautiful delicate virtue, coldly forbidden to exert itself, to exist, lest some mistake should wander onto the scene. What do they think a world would be like in which all the virtues have been stricken from the record lest some vice register its presence?

Madeleine felt the same way.


I build my house of shining glass
of crystal
light, clear,
The wind blows
Sets my rooms to singing.
The sun’s bright rays
are not held back
but pour their radiance through the rooms
in sparkles of delight.
And what, you ask, of rain
that leaves blurred muddy streaks
across translucent purity?
What, you ask,
of the throwers of stones?
Glass shatters, breaks,
sharp fragments pierce my flesh,
darken with blood.
The wind tinkles brittle splinters
of shivered crystal.
The stones crash through.
But never mind. 
My house
My lovely shining
fragile broken house
is filled with flowers
and founded on a rock.

If I had been her editor, I would have advised replacing phrases like, “the sun’s bright rays” and “sparkles of delight.” (Something more unique, more expressive, could have been found, surely?) Still, the poem in whole speaks, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t like to un-hear it. That flash of insight about how a glass house would sing in the wind—that’s the most genuinely poetical moment.

For Madeleine, one could both grieve evil (while trying to work for Love) and still retain the joy and innocence that poetry is most naturally vessel to. Far from being a cowering naivety, this innocence shelters in the shadow of something which has set itself against evil, as Adam the firstcreated man discovers in L’Engle’s poem, ‘Great and Holy Saturday.’ What is set against evil is immensely robust. It is strong—so strong that it reclaims the ultimate evil, death, and converts it to an inexpressible mystery of reasserted being: a tailor, to proffer my own metaphor, stitching robes of immortality.

Here we join Adam in Hades, accustomed and resigned to a shadowy existence where time seems neither long nor short because nothing happens:

The sound, when it came, was louder than thunder,
louder than the falling of a mountain,
louder than the tidal wave crashing down the city walls,
stone splitting, falling, smashing.
The light was brutal against my shaded eyes,
blinding me with brilliance. I was thousands
of years unaccustomed to the glory.

. . .

The crossed gates were trampled by his powerful feet
and I was wrenched through the chasm
as through the eye of the hurricane.
And then—O God—he crushed me
in his fierce embrace. Flesh entered flesh;
bone, bone. Thus did I die, at last.
Thus was I born.
Two Adams became one.
And in the glory Adam was.
Nay, Adam is.

The brotherliness and wholeness of Christ in this vision is both original and orthodox. His intense and triumphant engagement with the powers of creation is vitally Christian in a way that satisfies both ancient and modern hungers. The pace is dramatic. The vision of zoetic, thanatopic and cosmological mystery, informed both by primal splendor and by scientific awe, is rightly resolved in the flesh of Jesus – the safe harbor against his chest. This resolution invokes the secret well of joy in Christianity: the incarnation of Christ which places the gateway to all worlds in the pure and all-loving heart of the Man in whom all men are anchored to being and humanity and personhood.

It also reveals and sparks a movement within our spirits and minds—a movement we’ve enacted before and must enact over and over again—the flight through all trouble and difficulty and loss, home to Jesus. To Jesus, in whose flesh our own deaths are already accomplished, are housed and metamorphosized to wild adventure and ever-life.

The subject cannot be exhausted.

And while we confess that a greater poet might have made something greater of it, we also aver that the vision is a gift; and one must make something of one’s gifts.

If one took the poems literally, this one would seem to present a view incompatible with the image of Jephthah’s daughter after death, cast on the shore of Lake Tiberias. (What happens to people after death, we are asked… and sometimes forget to examine the assumption that we will confront a one-size-fits-all system, such as human government produces.) Be that as it may, the poems are united by the consolation in which they sum up the colossal limits set like cliffs around the sea of evil:

“You are, child, you are.”

“Do you now hold Pharaoh in your arms?”

“Adam is.”

Can he lose even one?

Madeleine L’Engle’s vision is distinct, original, and poetic enough to be remembered—to be contributory to a fully-formed English-speaking Christian consciousness. She is a literary resource for that collection of thoughts and feelings that we thoughtful modern Christians are forming to set afloat on the stream of tradition—the questions and answers, the sentiments and insights called forth by trying to live as Christians in modernity—the help future generations will need to remain connected, back through us and through history, to the foundations of our faith.

At Madeleine L’Engle’s invitation, we contemplate a goodness that is not a set of tortured rules futilely binding a wildly yearning nature. Here we find the goodness we know—the one that can be delicate and minor, or thunderous and cosmic; that never does harm, but sometimes hurts “in a good way”—the one that both rests and rises with all the force we find in our hearts and more, which in the roots of it is being, is “I am;” which is “I AM THAT I AM.”

If our thoughts are our lives then, Brethren, Madeleine L’Engle invites us to think on these things.


Alana Roberts blogs on poetry, culture, and Christian faith at Curmudgeon in Training.

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64 Responses to Madeleine L’Engle and the Poetry of Us

  1. AR says:

    Reblogged this on Curmudgeon In Training and commented:
    Here’s my second installment in the L’Engle Essay. Drop by and tell us what you love about Madeleine L’Engle.


  2. Jonathan says:


    Thank you for your advocacy of Madeleine L’Engle. I know her as a fine fantasist and am happy to see her legacy championed.

    I do wish you wouldn’t be so dismissive of the many earnest people who do not share your faith, your Christian worldview, and so produce and appreciate — deeply need, it could be — a literature which, as you put it, “contemplates evil.” I do not actually think that that is what the literature you dislike does, not by a long shot.

    Literary art is a universal human phenomenon. However, not all humans are Christians, or even close to being Christians. One of the fundamental functions of art is to represent reality as humans experience it, and we do not all experience it as Christians. How do you deal with that fact? If you want to build up a Christian aesthetics, I fear you only jeopardize this effort and undercut your own good points by referring to entire literary traditions or periods as “polluted” simply because they do not exhibit a confidently Christian worldview.

    Alright, so that’s my griping, for which I hope you will forgive me. I really appreciate your exhortation that what I would call comedic art be given its rightful place among the other modes. That is a genuine problem, although I think if you would survey more contemporary authors you would realize the scene is not totally bleak. (I might recommend to you the stories of Kirsten Valdez Quade.) It could be that the Christian is the only truly comedic worldview, or that all comedic worldviews point, sooner or later, to Christianity. I’m not quite convinced of that.

    I also really appreciate your pushing for levity, lightheartedness, and what I suppose we might call “minorness” in literature, poetry in particular. Just today my father was asking me for book recommendations. He’s an educated man though not especially literary, but I’ve lately gotten him to read War and Peace and Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus (if you haven’t read this last then please accept another recommendation, I guarantee you will like it). But he’s tried reading some other things I’ve suggested and put them down. It seems that what he wants at the moment is something lighter, maybe even funny, but still literary. And I realized it was rather a tall order, although eventually I hit upon several authors he might like, such as George Saunders and Kelly Link. But you are right that for the past two hundred years or so there have been periods of excessive gravitas in the literary world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • brian says:

      A few suggestions, all of them going back aways. If your father has not read The Diary of a Nobody by George and Wheedon Grossmith, it’s a gentle bit of whimsy. James Stephens’ The Crock of Gold is a rollicking farrago, though it probably helps if one is Irish and even more if one is drinking beer. And P. G. Wodehouse is always good for a lark. When I was young, I admired the satire of Saki; still like to dip into his work now and again, though I guess there’s too much acid there for simple light fun. The early Waugh novels are also very droll.

      Liked by 1 person

    • AR says:

      Jonathan, thank you for the kind words contained in this comment.

      Since you addressed it directly to me, I do want to reply. But since most of your comments have constituted a challenge to my expressed opinions, I want to make sure I reply dispassionately and thoroughly.

      So this comment is just to let you know that I’m working on a response.


      • Jonathan says:

        Please don’t put yourself out. We’re on the same team here. I want to work for the Christian vision of life, although my idea of what that is (when I have enough of one to work from) is maybe rather heterodox. Our difference may stem from the fact that I’ve spent my entire life in secular or at any rate non-Christian literary circles and continue to move in them. I have great respect and in some cases affection for people whose work I fear you would condemn as a contemplation of evil. For the record, I’m a terrible Christian. Like, seriously, I have no idea how to be a Christian in the 21st century. But I do know a thing or two about literature and literary criticism. With respect to that, the point I’m trying to make here is that you do not need to be negative in order to be positive. This was actually a problem with T S Eliot, by the way. What he did *for* certain poets still matters; his complaining *against* Romanticism or whatever no one takes seriously.


        • AR says:

          As a point of curiosity, have you run into this trend of telling people that their poems are not “real poems”? I keep seeing this all over the place, from academic writers. They tend to be chary with their justification for telling people this, but the one fellow I did get a reason out of essentially said that, re: Wordsworth on poetic diction, it is not a poem if it is not reader-centric; if it uses any language that one would not use in everyday speech. Which is astounding – imagine, saying that a poem is too poetical to be a real poem!

          But maybe there’s more to it. You got any inside track on this?


          • Jonathan says:

            I’m a little fuzzy on the question and not sure how much of a constructive answer I can give. I will say that my sense is that in general editors these days are looking for authenticity over virtuosity. It is a soul-searching time.


          • AR says:

            How odd a thought… that virtuosity is inauthentic.


          • Jonathan says:

            Perhaps it is, but in any case it’s not a thought contained in the very general observation I offered.


          • AR says:

            Oh? I didn’t know we were sticking it to people when their replies diverged too much from the intention of the comment. In that case I should tell you that I wasn’t asking about editors in the first place, and that neither authenticity nor virtuosity were in view in the question I asked. But I wasn’t going to say anything.

            I still think if you have someone preferring authenticity over virtuosity, and it’s not clarified that they would prefer to have both, that implies they think the two have an inverse relationship. Since inverse relationships can be expressed, inexactly, as oppositions, I do think that the thought of virtuosity being inauthentic is contained within your comment. Certainly it is contained within the assumptions of countless people who respond to any attempt at form and technique as if it were so artificial as to completely rule out the presence of any genuine feeling. Eventually, I am certain, it will be considered inauthentic to speak in sentences.

            And while the belief that what rises in spontaneity is genuine and heartfelt is not in itself a moral belief, it certainly corresponds to, and makes possible, the kind of thinking that excuses anything spontaneous as being more “real” and therefore more morally acceptable, than anything that arises from a more considered condition.

            And now it occurs to me that your word ‘authentic’ may have been your rewording of my word ‘real.’ I meant ‘real’ as ‘actual.’


          • AR says:

            “More considered condition” – I should have said, “more disciplined condition.” A considered, yet more authentic, phrasing.


          • Jonathan says:

            Alana, I’m sorry you have not found my observation helpful. It was only that, not an argument. I don’t know what academic writers you’re talking about (or even precisely what you mean by ‘academic writers’), whether it was somebody laying out Wordsworth’s poetics, or whether this business about ‘real poetry’ was something you were hearing back from editors to whom you’d submitted your work (here I was perhaps thinking of other comments you’ve made that seemed related). I indicated my confusion and supplied nevertheless, in the brief moment I had available to consider the matter, an observation that I thought might be suggestive. Then I pointed out that you had misinterpreted that observation. Now I will further point out that by authenticity I did not mean spontaneity, and by virtuosity I did not mean traditional form. However, unpacking the terms authenticity and virtuosity, whether as a binary opposition or in some other way, is not something I have time or inclination to do here. I used those terms, as I said, only to be suggestive.

            Anyway, good luck in your writing.


          • AR says:

            You were quite suggestive, never fear. Good luck in your teaching.


  3. Reblogged this on A Pilgrim in Narnia and commented:
    Madeleine L’Engle gets one of the “honourary Inklings” spots here on A Pilgrim in Narnia. A mythopoeic writer and creator of fantastic worlds, I know little about her poetry and adult novels. In this essay hosted by the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog, Alana Roberts talks about where L’Engle fits as a Christian poet. This essay is built upon a previous one that is a bit more technical. I hope you enjoy this Friday Feature.


  4. brian says:

    Have you read Scott Cairns, by any chance?


  5. AR says:

    While I never meant to say that only comedic writing is worthwhile, I do enjoy good humor. Possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read for literate folks is The Pooh Perplex. I think it has a slightly more recent sequel.


    • Jonathan says:

      Sorry if I caused any confusion — maybe I didn’t, but anyway I should have distinguished more clearly between comedic and comical. I mean comedic as in Dante’s comedy. The Christian story is a comedy, the Christian universe comedic. I took you to be advocating for both the comedic and the comic.

      I think I need to compile a list of good lighter stuff. Y’all are proving a good resource in that vein.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Leah Sommers says:

    That poem about Jephthah’s daughter is exquisite and graced. . . makes me physically breathe more softly in sympathy as I read it. So grateful to you for bringing this to my (our) attention, as well as Madeline L’Engle as a poet at all. In truth, I had never known!

    I think I can sympathize also with what you’ve been outlining regarding literary trends. I’m sure you are *not* sweepingly stating that there are no voices of merit, skill, or traditional worth (however it’s spun) among modern poets, but are offering generalized intuitions, as backdrop to your presentation of L’Engle, about historical and philosophical connections that partially form the atmosphere in which we all live, read, and write. There is certainly something. . . a collective malaise of sorts, that while it may not account for everything is certainly a significant cultural factor. . . a kind of niggling feeling that some strain of cynical sad apathy is simply *appropriate*, given everything. These things are hard to quantify.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. John H says:

    Dear Father Al and Alana
    Do you agree that Madeleine L’engle is a Christian Universalist poet? I was thinking that a list of notable Christian Universalist poets with the relevant universalist passages might be interesting, like the list of favorite universalist theologians that Father has on this website.

    Would T.S. Eliot be among them? At the very end of Little Gidding Eliot quotes Julian of Norwich and indicates that the fire of divine wrath and the rose of divine mercy shall become one in that timeless moment when “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

    Sorry if this is somewhat off topic.


    • Leah Sommers says:

      An anthology like that would be wonderful!

      Liked by 1 person

    • AR says:

      She hints at it, at least. Not having read all her fiction and non-fiction, I can’t tell you her exact views. (In other words whether she goes with “might be” or “will be.”) But certainly she suggests the possibility.

      It really would be nice. I wonder if poets are more inclined than other Christians to be Universalists.

      We all know C. S. Lewis’ views on this question, but for what it’s worth he was a really marvelous poet.


  8. Interesting insight into l’Engle – thanks for highlighting this side of her work and life. I know her writing only through ‘A Wrinkle In Time’, which was one of my favourite books as a kid (alongside Lewis’s Narnia series). Looking back, there is no doubt about the symbolism on many levels in that work.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. SB says:

    “She has no existential fault lines to reflect in jagged phrases and interrupted syntax.”
    It seems to me that the existential fault lines are the wounds of our time, and that Christ reveals his life and power through the bearing the wounds of the world. Not that we want to valorize woundedness for its own sake, but a wound is a site in which the power of being is revealed and by bearing that wound, reality speaks.

    Thus when you say “Coherent thought—the hallmark of the Christian mentality (which, after all, fostered science)—is also characteristic of L’Engle’s poetry,” I feel that while coherent thought is to be valued, that does not mean that one should flee from those zones where coherent thought breaks down, rather if it is there as a real thing that is happening, an actual motion of being, we should enter into it with faith that a deeper or more powerful vision of truth is to be found somewhere within it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • brian says:

      I’d like to piggyback a bit on SB’s comments. I think it is important to recognize that beyond the giftedness of being to the creature, the entire Creation is first and foremost a gift to and from the Triune God. We are a gift to God from God; we are meant to flourish. The glory of the Cosmos is radiant with the glory of God. My own sense of the gospel’s universal reach and of Balthasar’s theology of the Triduum is rooted in the sense that a comic resolution is the only one that is fitting, given the metaphysical implications of creatio ex nihilo and the revelation of TriUnity, that is, the God who is Love. Christ joins himself to all of creation, entering into the most remote abyss of rebellion, rejection, the cold silence of death and the resistant defiance and confused breakdowns into solitary muteness that mark the infernal state.

      Because Christ is present, performing an alchemy of love, even if kenotically beyond our capacity to image, I think a maximally broad poetics is initiated. All voices are held, nurtured, protected by God. There is more . . . a dynamic synergy was initiated by Mary’s “yes,” the nuptual play of creature and Creator was seeded into all of history, beginning to end. That “yes” is foundational to ecclesial existence and includes participation in the Cross. The teleological movement towards genuine freedom and loving celebration works itself out as an abiding poetics that includes the raggedness of the way, not as a determined, necessary, foreordained script as theodicy supposes, but as a continual, dramatic action of loving gift, response, and care.

      Given that each unique creature, preeminently in rational, personal being is rooted through formal and final causality in Logos, called to an eschatological conclusion in which the inherent worth of each and all is needed for a symphonic truth, part of the Christian vocation as poet is to discern the good and to nurture a naming that endures the tares that we all proliferate for the sake of the wheat that just now is the dying seed.
      Berdyaev rather controversially opined that some goods were inalienable from certain wayward journeys. That may or may not be a romantic indulgence, but the poetics of pilgrims must mirror darkly the mysterious beautiful fruition of life. It asks for an imaginative range that at times must demand innovations that press us; for the poetic inquiry as a questioning of being is necessarily a wading into the strangeness of being.

      This is not to deny the virtuosity of form or the splendor of truth that comes from the mastery of tradition. It is only to add that tradition is open-ended and receptive to a Word that continually surprises. In receptivity to that surprise is a “musical response” that bears cacophonies and vatic obscurities as modes of discovery and charity.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Jonathan says:

        This is it, fearless and affirmative. There needs to be a book built on just this sort of utterance. I don’t know what kind of book, exactly. Not a theological tome, even an unconventional one like the work of von Balthasar. Not an argument but a demonstration, a revelation. Something that people don’t even realize is Christian, at least not right away. It would have to be a book more literary than theological or academic. It’s a lot to think about where one goes from a statement like this, how it works out in the particulars of art and criticism. Thanks, Brian.

        Liked by 1 person

        • brian says:

          Thank you, Jonathan.

          I have been working on what I call a novel-thing off and on, mostly off, for over twenty years. It is pointed in the direction of what you indicate. I value discussion along these lines . . .


          • Jonathan says:

            Brian, somehow I missed this until now. I would be interested in hearing more about your literary work. Let me know if you’d like to correspond about such matters.


      • AR says:

        Excuse me, but that strikes me as a lot of double-talk. And I say that with the greatest respect and affection.

        This sentence: “In receptivity to that surprise is a “musical response” that bears cacophonies and vatic obscurities as modes of discovery and charity.” – I don’t believe that means anything at all.

        In an article on this blog, Brian, you told us that we have to maintain a certain critical distance between ourselves and the scriptures. If that “critical distance” is necessary with literature inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, how much more is it necessary between ourselves and the way that people experience their own suffering – which is nothing if not fallible?

        The whole temper of our age is for people to be walking wounds. They do not seek cures. They insist that their wounds are not wounds at all, but are their true selves. They rage against wholeness as mere presumption, as a facade. To lend the weight of Christian influence to the side of the scale that is already over-weighted seems to me foolish.

        We do not have to believe what people tell us about their woundedness, any more than a doctor has to listen to a 4-year-old who insists his immunization is going to kill him. No matter what the sufferer tells you, walking-wound syndrome is not due to a lack of social grace or sensitivity on the part of Christians. This was created by social engineering – by the wicked and by oppressors. We do not have to make it easy for them to further this destruction. To be whole – and, artistically, to portray wholeness and bring wholeness to the understanding of the wounded – is the best antidote – it stings, it creates envy, and then it converts. You can see this in Paul’s epistle to the Romans when he talks about giving salvation to the Gentiles as a way of stinging the Jews to envy, in order to eventually bring them to salvation in turn.

        Goodness is not necessarily niceness. In fact it is almost never niceness.

        There is another great objection to your approach. And this is that it sets poets up to be substitute confessors. Even real confessors, graced with that authority, struggle to bear the weight of other people’s sins. I consider this idea of “entering into the woundedness of others” to be the literary parallel to the “method acting” approach to the theatrical art. It has a lot of adherents, especially academic, and could equally be seen as a mystical or religious bearing of the “wounds of our time.” Yet it destroys the actors who participate in it. Have we forgotten Heath Ledger?

        As might be anticipated, “method acting” was invented by a Marxist. It is a tool of propaganda to remove the artistic distance between audience and character – to make them less critical of the character’s viewpoint, even when it is corrupted.

        Moreover, there is a reason that confession happens in private. To inflict the undoubtedly contagious flow-off of moral disease upon the public is irresponsible. Yet poetry is a public art. It contributes to public discourse, sentiment, and understanding. It happens in public.

        No, I can’t agree to this.

        They only way to treat evil in a good poem is to depict it from the standpoint of wholeness. That is because wholeness is the true standpoint. When the poem enters into the experience of evil, a line has been crossed.


        • Jonathan says:

          Alana, I think you bring to bear on art a kind of moral judgment that will never make sense of what art is for. Are you familiar with the treatment of the poets in Plato’s Republic? If so, can I ask what you make of it?


    • AR says:

      When you say that “reality speaks” when we verbally bear a wound, are you saying that the wound is real, in the same way the thing wounded is real? In other words, are you taking a position in the nominalism debate?


      • brian says:


        I am slammed at my day job and certainly do not have the time to give a measured and complete response. I think you have understood what I intend as metaphysical assertions as psychological ones. If you understand what I say to be a kind of naive assent to the ascriptions of wounded, fallible human creatures, you have misinterpreted badly. I proposed a stauriologoical aesthetic, if anything. And if you have read the many posts I have made on this blog, you would know that I am strongly opposed to a nominalist individualism. What I claim is that the Christian poet (from wholeness if you like) is capable of appreciating and integrating a plurality of voices. Moreover, the person, even healed, bears the marks of temporal wounds, bears a history, and the narrative of redemption redeems, does not simply discard, the wandering, ragged path. What I am talking about is more in the manner in which Eru Iluvater answers the discordant thoughts of Melkor by integrating them into a sweeping, musical synthesis. It is musical because music themes require both attention to the past and an understanding of the musical whole. Unlike visual art, music requires a listening attentiveness that precisely avoids the kind of ideological command and distortion you repudiate. A music that is dramatic must always attend to how best to integrate extemporaneous musical speech within the symphonic truth that is rooted in the Logos, not sophistry.

        In any event, you’ve missed the aesthetic pretty much completely if you haven’t understood that the base line is Christological, not nominalist individualist. Further, I don’t think you understand the poetic process as in any manner a struggle to articulate a mysterious reality. You seem to equate clarity with revelation, but perhaps I am wrong. Vatic obscurities, of course, mean nothing if being is simply transparent to us.

        Best I can do for now.


        • brian says:

          I am rather amazed, btw, that somehow you conclude from this discussion that there is advocacy for a simpering sentimentality. Niceness?!? That is a term largely sociological and confined to amiability. Goodness is an ontological term, full of mystery. Read over Father’s recent article on Bulgakov. When I write “the Christian vocation as poet is to discern the good and to nurture a naming that endures the tares that we all proliferate for the sake of the wheat that just now is the dying seed” I am aiming at the discovery of the truth of a person in Christ, not some misapprehension. You appear to have equated what I call “enduring the tares” to a tolerance indifferent to truth. I feel as if you have projected an entirely different thematic upon what I have written and drawn conclusions lacking warrant. Nonetheless, Jonathan is probably correct that you have a strain of the moralist in your artistic sensibility that is foreign to my own. This does not equate to a lack of precision in vision or clarity about ethics. I certainly appreciate the judgement, wit, and comic artistry of a Jane Austen, for instance. I do think the poetic enterprise wrestles with complex being and this does not always produce a serene art. And the holy is in some sense “beyond good and evil,” not by a coddling of evil, but by simply transcending the narrowed perceptions of a fallen world that make such discussion meaningful. (And they are meaningful — to forestall more fury — but penultimately. Eschatological beauty arises beyond the limits of “moral satire.”)

          And sorry, but ecclesial existence is a participation in the life of Christ. It is not presumptuous or a bathetic and tasteless exercise in psychological examination to seek out the reality of the other in all the complexity of being and history and eschatological calling that contributes to personhood. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Georges Bernanos, I recommend The Diary of a Country Priest and Monsieur Ouine as examples of prose confession where irony, compassion, and exacting judgement regarding evil is present. The notion that woundedness is an inbreaking into mystery and insight, while not automatic, is as old as Aeschylus, let alone Isaiah 53. The fact that a modern democratic age can create a facile and tawdry narcissism out of a genuine element of human experience is not surprising. One does not deny the value of a coin because there are cheap counterfeits.


          • Jonathan says:

            Bernanos exactly one to bring up here. Your mention of him brought to my mind Gogol. The story of what happened to Gogol’s creative work under the influence of his confessor or starets is terrifying. He was one of the greatest Russian writers and a Christian of deep faith. His career was scuttled by his confessor, who made him abandon what would have been the subsequent portions of what he thought of as his Orthodox ‘version’ of the Divine Comedy, of which we have only the first, infernal part, Dead Souls, among the finest novels ever written. There’s moralism for you — or, to quote Gogol himself, “It is dull in this world, gentlemen!”

            Liked by 1 person

        • AR says:

          Nominalist? I wasn’t talking to you just then… I guess I should have put a name at the top of the comment.


        • AR says:

          “Further, I don’t think you understand the poetic process as in any manner a struggle to articulate a mysterious reality.”

          No, I certainly do not, because that would be a transgression against the very nature of definitions. Your idea of poetry as an articulation of a mysterious reality is a fine idea, with no proper boundaries. (The complete intellect must give equal weight to substance (ideas) and form (the manner by which we reason about and delimit those ideas.)

          I haven’t really gotten into my actual theory of poetics here. I’ve been working from it, certainly, but I haven’t expounded it at all. I guess you could sum it up by saying that I believe poetry must be defined as being precisely what it is, no more and no less. What I mean is, that all poems should be considered poems, and everything that is not a poem should not be considered as such. Prescriptions for poetry that insist it must live up to a certain trans-artistic purpose, such as the quasi-religious one that you’ve so ecstatically propounded here, define away too many poems as “not really being poems.” The fellows who are saying that poems have to be reader-centric and confine themselves to every-day speech are doing the same thing. At best, the kind of poetry you describe should be thought of as just that – a certain kind of poetry. It is not poetry itself. Poetry is simply the art of words – the only art of words. Or, of language, if you will. That is the only definition that lets in all the poems and keeps out all the non-poems.

          Anything language can do is permissible within a poem, provided it is also something that language ought to do, and provided that language is understood in its fulness.

          Certainly one of the actions of language is to articulate a mysterious reality. But not every utterance does that. And *doing that is not what makes an utterance poetry.*

          Of course, even when you are writing that kind of poetry, as long as the “mysterious reality” remains completely mysterious, it has not been articulated, so there *must* be a push toward clarity. I don’t know where revelation comes in.

          As an example of what is becoming too abstract, let’s take the Imagists – one of the first and most famous of the modern schools of poetry. Their idea was that the real poem was a collection of verbal images. If you didn’t have the image, you didn’t have a poem. If you did, you did. And the early poems of Ezra Pound, for instance, are just electrifying and sort of intoxicating because he’s distilling this imagery side of the thing in a way no one had before. But what happened to the whole movement? It became untenable. The poems kept becoming more and more image, and less and less other things, and pretty soon they were just these bizarre revolting things that no one could enjoy except through the most sophisticated sensibility.

          To the extent I’ve seen so far, every other school of poetics fell into precisely the same trap. They selected a strain of poetics – some one thing that poetry can do – and tried to make it the whole thing. It certainly makes for interesting quarrels, but does no good otherwise.

          I don’t know if it’s true that I mistook for psychological what you meant as metaphysical. I do know that in my mind, everything is connected. You never get one thing without everything else coming in. I try to make them come in orderly.

          I hope work is going better for you today. I am never in a hurry about replies.


          • brian says:

            Alas, lately work is not accommodating. I certainly would agree that everything is connected. I know I frequently reference a lot of relatively heavy philosophical books, but I think William Desmond’s Art, Origins, and Otherness has some helpful thoughts on creativity and metaphysics. I also think Rowan Williams The Edge of Words has a few places that help explain the legitimacy of a “vatic poetry.” I am not claiming, btw, that all poetry is of that nature, only that it is a mode that is not simply undigested, subjective detritus. Also, when I speak of the mystery of being, I am particularly invested in countering modern utilitarian, pragmatic notions of language use that tend towards a univocal clarity that turns created res into inert objects. So, I am trying to keep open the cognitive value of metaphor and the symbol bearing nature of creatures. So, I am just as opposed to insular subjectivism as you are. Poetic insight is a contemplative penetration into depths that inspires poetic speech. Interpretation of creaturely reality is not the mere subjective projection or construction of meaning that a nihilist scientism imagines.

            In any event, I embed prose poems and lyric within larger narrative writing. I am always struggling to find a form that matches vision. When I am creating, I am not thinking about theory. When one writes, naturally, one needs clarity about the made object or nothing gets made.


          • AR says:

            Brian, I do think there is such a thing as prophetic poetry, if that is what you are talking about – inspired versified literature that turns the special capabilities of poetry to the purpose of illuminating what you have called the mystery of being. The psalms are a wonderful example of such literature.

            And for the record, while I don’t think being is all mysterious, I do think all being is mysterious. But I have respect for the appearances. You can’t live in the mystery of being – that’s not where mankind was appointed to live. And poetry turns with especial handiness to that part of reality where people live. So while I loathe the reduction, except for scientific purposes, of a violet to molecules and chemical reactions, I think that the reduction of a violet to some equally invisible metaphysical idea is just as objectionable. It is only at the point that the metaphysics and the molecules and the cultivated human mind combine to make an actual violet that you have something to write a poem about. I guess the actual violet is what you mean by “creative res” though why in God’s name you don’t just say so is beyond me.

            You say that you don’t think prophetic poetry is the only kind of poetry. Yet later, it still sounds as if you do think that. You say without qualification, “Poetic insight is a contemplative penetration into depths that inspires poetic speech.”

            As a poet, I am telling you, a philosopher, that this is not what poetry is. That penetration is just one thing that poetry can *represent.* It can never *be* that – because that is what philosophy is. Perhaps philosophy has been stolen from real philosophers, so you have to disguise it as poetry. If so, you have my sympathy.

            But when poetry does represent philosophy, it must create distance between the reader and the philosophizing, or else it fails to entirely become representative, to entirely become art instead of philosophy. Perhaps the best evidence of this is that, as you tell us, your “poetry” tends to get written as prose. It fails to entirely emerge in the form of poems.

            There is a reason that fully realized poetry gets written as verse. The form, the practice, and the discipline, of verse was invented by people who loved the art of formed language, as potters love the art of formed earth. Writing a prose poem is like starting out to paint a picture of a clay vase, and ending up with an actual clay vase sticking onto the canvas instead.

            We both agree that all these areas are connected… so the philosophical questions about language and meaning will, indeed, bear upon our understanding of what poetry can do. But it requires a poet to translate that philological consideration into poetical practice. Assumptions like the scientific nihilism you mention are not going to come out first in a different choice of subject for poetry, or in different content. They going to first come out in different techniques. The first thing that happens when a violet is just a collection of molecules is that a poem about a violet becomes just a collection of words – and fails to become, quite, a poem, just as the purple petals fail in the mind of that would-be poet to become, quite, a violet. So you understand, now, I hope, why I object to someone who believes a violet is a created thing with invisible depths of mystery behind it, writing a poem about a violet that is formless and prosaical. His content says one thing, while his technique says another.

            So no, poetic speech is not inspired by contemplative penetration into depths. It is inspired, literally, by everything – by every experience of every thing.

            Nor it is an interpretation of creaturely reality – again, that is philosophy, which is basically a science. So yes you are absolutely correct that interpretation is not the mere subjective projection or construction of meaning that a nihilist scientism imagines. But it’s not poetry either. Poetry is art, and art doesn’t *interpret* reality. It *represents* it. Properly speaking, I suppose it doesn’t even contemplate; it invites contemplation by showing us (representing) the thing we want to contemplate.

            This is not an up-to-date view, I know. The establishment is all against representative art. But when that happened, the establishment lost art.

            So yes, please continue to counter, philosophically, the reduction of actual things, with all their submerged iceberg of metaphysical significance, to “inert objects.” I love that.

            Meanwhile, I will continue to counter, critically, the reduction of art to the service of any ideology, whether I agree with that ideology or not.


            I think I’m satisfied that you don’t want poems written that are just uncritical regurgitations of people’s false experience. I *think,* I say, because it’s difficult to tell for certain. You seem to be trying to put your meaning out of my reach, whereas I am trying my hardest to put my meaning within yours. With all that talk of woundedness – which I took to be moral woundedness – and how that is where you really find being and so forth, it seemed as if you, SB, and Jonathan were all getting together and agreeing that poems which express incoherence and sinfulness (instead of *representing* incoherence and sinfulness from a standpoint within the imagination that sees it for what it is: incoherence and sinfulness) are somehow redemptive. If that is at all that was meant, I still say it’s double talk to insist that’s grounded in Christology or the cross. Art, as I say, is representative and its purpose is to add delight to man’s life by showing him, in a mirror, all that surrounds him. All that surrounds him – and that that it does him good to be thinking on. It is in this way that art mystifies being. Coherence within a work of art does not imply that human beings understand everything. It implies that we think God understands everything. The poet is being God to his poem; he has got to make it as he thinks God has made the world. And he has got to make it for other people as God made the world for God. If some poets don’t believe in God, I can’t help that. Such people are not going to be poets much longer, and no amount of longing for the transcendent (which Jonathan justly approves in them) is going to save poetry for them. Transcendence has no special ownership of poetry.


            I want to thank you for your discourse here. You’ve stuck with me, and while you may not be happy, I don’t know, with how my views have clarified in the course of it all, I do think it’s been really good for me. Most of this work is from reading and writing I’ve done previously, but it’s coming together in a completely new way because I’ve had to make answers to different questions out of that work than I was trying to answer before. Again, thanks.

            Liked by 1 person

  10. albert says:

    I plan to print out this and the previous post along with all the comments. What a resource. I shall be rereading and reading again. Thanks, Alana, for introducing me to Madeleine L’Engle’s poems. I feel a kinship, even with her straightforward style. (P.S., About editing phrases like “the sun’s bright rays,” I wonder if she was setting us up for the later delightful surprise, “The wind tinkles brittle splinters / of shivered crystal.”)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Hi, guys. Given that the discussion has turned to literary theory, I was wondering if anyone has read The English Poetic Mind by Charles Williams. Grevel Lindop describes it as brilliant. According to Lindop, Williams argues for the self-referential nature of poetry:

    Williams sweeps away all considerations of the poet’s biography and intentions. In poems, it is poetry that speaks; and what does it speak about? It speaks about poetry. In his insistence on the self-referential nature of poetry, Williams anticipates both Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Yet he does so without the negative and destructive implications for meaning which those authors often convey. This is because he assumes that it is poetry itself which speaks; and he hints that poetry in the full sense may be the Holy Spirit. (Charles Williams, p. 193)

    I’m about half-way through Lindop’s biography of Williams. It’s a fascinating read.


    • Jonathan says:

      Haven’t read it. Sounds like it’s of a piece with the contemporaneous New Criticism, but with a Christian inflection.


    • brian says:

      I have read much of Williams, but not that one. The biography sounds intriguing.


    • AR says:

      No… I have been trying to encompass C. S. Lewis before moving on to any of the other Inklings. There’s a rare-ish little book called ‘The Personal Heresy’ I have in which Lewis does argue against conflating the poem and the poet, like you say Williams does. But he means that you have to take the poem as it ended up, without bringing in non-poetical considerations such as the poet’s biography, moral character, personality and so forth – except as they result in a specifically poetic result which then must be judged on poetic grounds.

      However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t apply moral considerations when you are evaluating poetry. It just means that you have to apply them to the poem, not to the poet. He’s clear that you can have a very skillful poem that is also bad in its content.

      Lewis says: “The ‘Dirty Twenties’ of our own century produced poems which succeeded in communicating moods of boredom and nausea that have only an infinitesimal place in the life of a corrected and full-grown man. That they were poems, the fact of communication and the means by which it was effected, are, I take it, sufficient proof. But the experience communicated was certainly not that of spiritual supermen…”

      However he doesn’t appear to have any desire to finally separate the poem from the poet’s intention in criticism.

      Anyhow, this bit from Williams about poetry being the Holy Spirit and being self-referent… well without reading it for myself I can’t say for certain. But from what you’ve provided here, this is my response.

      First of all, I’m guessing that this is an attempt to get at the essence of poetry and not its definition. It would make a very bad definition, as I explained to Brian above about the idea of poetry as “an attempt to articulate a mysterious reality.”

      As a stab at essence it goes very, very deep – almost too deep to apply any kind of judgment to it. It strikes me as a flight of unrestrained idea-linking. The main problem I see with it is that, theologically, nothing can be both the Holy Spirit and self-referential. The Holy Spirit always witnesses, not of Himself, but of Another.

      The other problem I see is that it has the tendency to rarify poetry so much as to remove it entirely from the uses of other language. The mark of language is its ability to refer to something outside itself, and poetry ceases to be language if it ceases to do that.

      So the only way this could be true is if all that exists – everything to which poetry can refer – is also, somehow, the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this is what Williams believes – or perhaps he believes that the “appearances” (to borrow Barfield’s term) of things are so dependent upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit within the human mind that all creation is the Holy Spirit insofar as it is converted into intelligible content in the mind. Although really, this would ignore the complementary action of the Word in creation.

      I pretty much distrust anything that is self-referential. Such things become indulgent and collapse.

      That’s not a total “no” – especially since I haven’t read it for myself. It’s just that these flights of unrestrained idea linking, or ecstatic utterances, usually get at something – but they are so ungrounded in the common experience that you can’t make any kind of systematic guide-rule out of them.

      Father, to be honest, if you are looking for poetic criteria, I really believe the best guide is your own sense of delight. You are a literate man with agreeable and normal and universal feelings. You have experienced much of life, good and bad. You are more than equipped read a poem or not, based on your enjoyment of it. I’ve published a Lewis quote to that effect today, and will publish another tomorrow morning. One the morning following I plan to publish a quote about how poetry arises by refining certain aspects of ordinary conversation.

      Of course the “appetite grows with what it feeds on” – but that is all the more reason to feed only on that which is capable of eliciting delight. As the capacity for delight grows, one becomes able to enjoy more and more – but only in the right direction. Forcing the appetite to feed on things which one’s own feelings don’t approve of puts one at risk for developing quite horrifying tastes.

      There’s a very interesting little quote in a funny little book from the 1950’s called “A Social History of Art: Volume 4” It refers to the Symbolists poets, led by a fellow named Mallarmé who was writing in the late 1800’s. Here is what an online encyclopedia says about him, just to give you an idea of his similarity to Charles Williams – and his continuing influence today:

      “Though Mallarmé’s work was initially met with hostility for its difficulty and obscurity, his experimental work and his intricate theories eventually made him a favorite for twentieth-century writers and readers. Thanks to his disavowal of tradition, his unconventional syntax, his indirect expression, and his resistance to criticism, adventurous writers continue to extend his methods into contemporary poetics.”

      In other words, most people couldn’t read him, and many poets of the 20th and 21st century like it that way and continue to “extend his methods.”

      Now, there was another fellow, a journalist contemporary to Mallarmé named Jules Huret, who used to go about basically sponsoring newspaper debates between different schools of art theory. Someone asked him whether he didn’t blame the Symbolists and Mallarme for their obscurity. Here is his reply, as quoted in the Social History of Art.

      “By no means. Pure art is becoming more and more a possession of an elite in this age of democracy, the possession of a bizarre, morbid, and charming aristocracy. It is right that its level should be upheld and that it should be surrounded by a secret.”

      I can just imagine ordinary people, not of the artistic aristocracy, trying to read and enjoy the Symbolist poetry. They object that it doesn’t seem to mean anything, that it doesn’t do what they expect it to, and that they seem to see intimations of all sorts of evil in it. They are mocked and told that they don’t “get” or understand the art. The great joke in all this is that the art was purposely made for them not to “get” and so this poetry was in part an expression of contempt (contemplation of evil.) But – note, please – these poets, despite what they may say in public, don’t really contemn the common reader *because* he can’t understand their art. No, indeed. They make sure he cannot understand their art *because they contemn him.* It is class warfare carried on in literary form. It is also dishonest.

      There is no better indication of this than the fact that this same mass of common readers contemned by the Symbolists and Huret absolutely *adored* Robert Browning – possibly the greatest and most monumental poet of the 19th century.

      It’s not surprising that C. S. Lewis would have taken a completely opposite viewpoint. He was not a snob, and did not believe that art was a matter of class. He was a self-avowed democrat (though also a monarchist – nothing contradictory about that) and he felt that poetry would die out if its adherents tried to make something divine or aristocratic about it. Poetry owed something to its ordinary readers – something of the same sort that children owe parents – and without them poetry would become simply despised and ignored.

      Some of our co-conversationalists are “fine” with the fact that the ordinary person today has to get his poetry from pop song lyrics. I am not. C. S. Lewis was not.

      Here’s another Lewis quote: “In a stricter terminology, however, nearly all men are poets, in the sense that they can and do exploit the extra-logical properties of language… We do not usually call them poets: just as I am not called a carpenter though I could, at a pinch, put up some sort of shelf…”

      This idea of poetry being rooted in something all men do makes a lot of sense to me because the same is true of logic and other disciplines. The science of correct thinking is simply the explicit and thorough mastery of something that everybody does every time they use the “be” verb, or depend upon the assumption that two things which contradict one another cannot both be true in the same sense.

      If this is true of science, logic, philosophy, theology – why not poetry? It seems very likely and in fact I observe it all the time.

      My little 4-year-old daughter came up to me one day in the grip of some filial emotion and sang to me solemnly,

      I love my Mommy so much
      it’s like a heart attack all over.
      It belongs
      with the sea-shells of the earth.

      It is not my policy to bad-mouth living poets, but frankly I’d take that poem over most of what I’ve read in journals – and not just for sentimental reasons. 🙂

      On the far side of this question is the other completely different question of whether one should write in ordinary everyday speech when poeticizing (in deference to the ordinary or common reader I have been championing) or whether one should use poetic diction. Lewis has an answer for that, as well. Suffice it to say that if you consult the tastes of common men, they much prefer poetic diction to bland conversation split up into lines. Perhaps nothing grieves me more about all this than the thought of all those aspiring poets sitting in high school classrooms across our land, being told by their teachers to be “authentic” and just vomit out whatever comes, and on no account to attempt rhyming or meter. These ideas and practices *do* have an ideological lineage, and that ideology is implied and imported within the forms and practices they produce. I will continue to attempt to demonstrate that fact.

      Thanks for bringing up a very interesting question!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I discovered yesterday that the English Poetic Mind is available on the internet:

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    For everybody’s interest: This article was just published by Brenton Dickieson: “What Art is For.”


    • AR says:

      Like him I’ve found it necessary to read ‘An Experiment in Criticism’ several times over, and I expect I will do so several times again.


  13. brian says:


    You seem to be, correctly I think, in a mood to sum up. I do not fully agree with your assessments, but I respect your thoughts and I do agree with much of what you say. A few points of clarification. I said “creative res” as opposed to “innert object,” because res signifies for me the Latin, pre-modern understanding where a thing had weight and ontological depth. I’ve talked about this before in relation to Kenneth Schmitz’s fine book, The Recovery of Wonder.

    The truth of a thing is always aletheia, an unveiling. When I am talking about mysterious depths, I am trying to get at the “surplus” that makes every perspectival capture incomplete. I am not trying to say that we know invisibilities in some manner that circumvents the senses. There is also a theologically important understanding of wonder that I am keen to keep in the forefront. For moderns, wonder is ignorance. Reality is reductively understood to be what can be comprehended by a problem/solution paradigm. Once the solution is arrived at, the mystery solved, wonder disappears. Yet a proper contemplation of reality ought to be such that knowledge goes along with perduring or increasing wonder. It is an entirely different dynamic. So when I talk about the mystery of being, that mystery should be tied to seeing, to image, to the concrete particular. (I hope this is not coming across as philosophical mystification to you, but if so, I really can’t think of any other way to put it just now.)

    My background is eclectic. My first love as a child was stories. I read C. S. Lewis obsessively after my parents divorced. Lewis became a kind of mediated father figure for me. My PhD is technically in Literature, though it was an interdisciplinary program and it is equally philosophical theology as much as literature. I write narrative with experimental prose poem riffs. I am not a poet in the conventional sense and I recognize that poets think about making differently. I love poetry and I think I can interpret it pretty well, but I am not writing as someone who speaks as a practicing poet. Nonetheless, I do not think that excludes me from having an understanding of poetics or theoretical understanding of the relation between language and reality.

    One of my favorite poets, btw, Czeslaw Milosz, explicitly preferred poetry to novels — he wrote a good one, The Isla Valley, because he saw novelists as confessional and making illicit use of personal life. His poetry has lyric moments of seeming confession, but apparently he understood a transfiguration to have taken place that altered the private into a public act. Hence, I am not utterly unsympathetic to what I understand of your views here, but I do suspect there is still simply a difference in judgement beyond mere theoretical distance.

    I am not aware of trying to ever put my meaning out of your reach. I hope that what I have said here is recognizable to you as lucid and honest expression.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. AR says:

    I would like to add a note to the discussion, which seems to be all but wrapped up. When I wrote this piece on Madeleine L’Engle, I had a whole constellation of idiosyncratic ideas and associations surging around her. I needed to chose what came nearest her in my thought, and I wasn’t able to give the whole picture of how all those ideas and associations related to one another and to my whole picture of reality.

    In truth, I didn’t really have a good way of gauging how different or similar my ideas and associations would be to those of others.

    Looking back, there’s one really important idea in all this that I have failed completely to connect with the knowledge set and mindframe of my readers. And that idea is ‘contemplation.’ Since that side of the discussion has continued both at my blog and in personal correspondence, I have come to the point where I have a bit of something to say on that here, to hopefully give my treatment of L’Engle a more complete context.

    In the Orthodox view of the intellect, as I think most of us know, the mind is not the sole organ of thought. The heart also thinks. In fact, without the heart, the mind can’t truly think, but merely calculates. (Actually when I researched Indian Astrology for a story I was writing, I found that they believe much the same thing as far as that goes.)

    But this thinking that the heart does is different than mental thought. According to St. Theophan, the mind is easy both to defile and to cleanse. But if something that is defiling the mind gets down into the heart, it is much harder to cleanse the heart. It is harder to defile the heart – but harder to cleanse it as well.

    I think since the heart is so central to man’s conception of himself and the world, if the heart has been defiled it is harder to see around the defilement. It starts to seem normal; you look through it as through glasses. You are uncomfortable and tormented but most likely you don’t know why, as the mind calculates excuses for you. At least, this is what I think happens.

    ‘Contemplation’ is my word for thinking that the heart does, as opposed to thinking that the mind does. It is a special kind of thinking, in which one unites oneself to the object of thought, instead of remaining apart from it and just mentally “looking at it.” That is why, as I told Albert over at Curmudgeon, I believe there are things that it’s OK to read about it in the newspaper that you should never read about in a poem.

    My concern is that art provides a short-cut to the heart. Its function – what it was devised to do and what it will always do so long as the artistic forms are retained – is to invite contemplation. It invites the involvement of the heart.

    I am sure this is why St. Paul advises us, “Whatever is good, true, pure, lovely, and of good reputation, think on these things.” (A verse which I partially quoted at the end of my L’Engle post.)

    I think it is also the meaning of Satan’s enticement to Eve: “In the day you eat of it, you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Of course, she must already have a mental idea of what ‘evil’ is, or the sentence would make no sense. When she eats the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she unites herself to it – to the “knowledge” that was supposed to remain in front of her eyes, not within her belly. From a Queen and Mother of Man, she is transformed to a cowering avoidant fool.

    Mary, our Holy Lady, is the opposite. Despite the evils that surround her, we only see her making and enjoying art about the goodness of God. This is what she contemplates, because her whole purpose is to be good, to retain her inheritance of purity.

    “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”

    This is why I say that Christian art shouldn’t contemplate evil – I mean, invite contemplation of evil.

    Lewis says that what interests a wise man is what should be considered interesting in a simple sense. I say that in the absence of a wise man, we might take note of what interests children. I think a wise man has a grown-up’s intellect but a heart that, much like a child’s heart, has managed to remain pure or to regain purity. Wisdom is the effect on the mind of the heart’s direction. It is knowledge that is not the fruit of calculations – that is intimately acquainted with the right direction and recognizes it for being itself.

    Perhaps the best way to purify the heart is to meditate on the Psalms or the Magnificat. When we find our hearts at ease after a church service, this is what good liturgical art has done for us.

    If we want to make art of our own, or read art, then there ought to be some positive virtue in it which attracts us.

    Although I never addressed it, there was a question about what all this means for enjoying art made by non-believers. My belief is that wherever we find good we ought to encourage and enjoy it. If I find a book or poem or picture with sufficient virtue in it, I open myself up to that, even if the maker was not a Christian. What I can never do, though, is to abandon my Christian way of judging what virtue is in the first place. It is the function of religion to provide such judgment, and that judgment is meant to give us direction in every area of life. To abandon it in certain areas, in the belief that those areas aren’t religious so they don’t require such judgment, is to misunderstand what religion is for.

    Which brings us to the question, how does one develop a Christian way of judging virtue?

    And I’m afraid that when it comes to art, the only way to develop that Christian way of judging virtue is to enjoy a lot of recognized Christian art. The Christian mindset, the Christian taste, must be cultivated.

    To take the example of an artist who is not a Christian, but who is trying his best to write good poems – let’s ask for a moment why he isn’t a Christian. Christianity is available to him – why doesn’t he embrace it? The answer is that there is something in him that is inimical to Christianity. Some thought of his that doesn’t agree with it; some directionality of his that forbids it. I don’t say this by way of condemnation, but observation. That thought, that directionality, may not be easily recognizable as a moral or religious content. It may seem to be completely unrelated. The point is that if he puts some trace of it into his poem, and you contemplate his poem, the result might very well be inner contradictions. Something you have planted in yourself through his poem is contradicting your own Christianity. Maybe if it’s the only item of its kind in your heart, you cleanse it out. But on the other hand, perhaps you become scandalized by Christianity. Or perhaps you begin to doubt Christ. Perhaps you simply begin to feel alienated from the Church, and dream of inventing a new kind that is more tenable in the secular world. Others have had this happen to them before.

    And that is why it is important to read cautiously and with the mind only when first judging a secular artist, and to back that caution up with mountains of reading that you know, already, will do you good. The appetite for newness shouldn’t be allowed to get out of hand. When we find something good, we should become intimately acquainted with it – read and re-read, imbibe and devour. We should unite ourselves to it the way that Eve should have united herself to the Tree of Life, instead of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

    Thanks for reading, everyone!


    “I am old-fashioned or sentimental or something about books. Whenever I read one I want in the first place to enjoy myself, and in the next, to feel that I am a little better and not a little worse for having read it. You recollect what Oliver Wendell Holmes says in ‘Over The Teacups’ apropos of some French books? It is to the effect that there are certain sights and sounds which, if seen or heard, leave an indelible stain, so that the man or woman is never quite as clean afterward, and this is doubly true of whatever appeals to the imagination. I do not want people to shirk facts, or write what is not so, and it is often necessary to dwell on painful things; but I feel that they should be dwelt upon in proper fashion and not for the sake of giving a kind of morbid pleasure.”

    – Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter to Alice and Cale Rice

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan says:

      Alana, I must apologize, my comments here have been useless. I now see the reason why, and that the misprision has been entirely my own: I thought you were striving to formulate a Christian aesthetics, whereas what you’re after is an aesthetics for Christians. These are widely different projects.

      The various recommendations I’ve made as to authors stand on their merits. I will add a final recommendation, especially since you (and other readers here) seem to be interested in mid-twentieth century Christian British writers: Dorothy Sayers, particularly her essays. Her sensibility is actually much closer to yours than Charles Williams’.

      Liked by 1 person

      • AR says:

        Yes, I think that’s true. It was easier for me to disentangle all that after the dust had settled a bit. 🙂

        Dorothy Sayers is a favorite of mine, but I haven’t read that much of her so I’ll take that to heart. I do think those mid-20th Brits did something really important and a lot of us are trying to pick up the banner they laid down. To connect what they formulated to the requirements of today’s situation. When Lewis died in 1963 it was a very strange moment in the world.


      • brian says:


        Yes, I suppose I was equally confused, but I don’t really believe in an aesthetics for Christians. I do think a Christian aesthetics is a meaningful concept and that is what I was trying to articulate. For the latter, I think discernment involves determining the poet’s engagement with the real including the struggle to understand and to give form and representation to vision. Some people dislike late Michelangelo: his sculptures strain to release from the stone. Such might be seen as an imperfect art halted before realization of the image. I think it is legitimate to examine the dynamism of human creativity and resistance, as well as the complex mediation of the idea. A more inclusive, comprehensive notion of form follows . . . and also a more complex assessment of the artist.

        Marion Montgomery once wrote an interesting trilogy devoted to the poets engagement with the real. The series was officially The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age. The individual volumes are more interesting. Why Poe Drank Liquor, Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy, Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home. The link between aesthetics and metaphysics was significant and played a role in interpretive discernment. But from my perspective, I cannot see any artist as simply exemplary of good theology or bad ideology — and I always think of them as someone who is meant for joy, who has a unique and necessary name in the body of Christ. And even where they fail, I think there must be a trace of that name. Further, if I respond to their art, I do not really first think, is this an indulgence and somehow a slipping of Christian prudence on my part? There may be a place for that kind of thinking, but my initial prejudice is to think the particular artist has been gifted some genuine insight into reality. And since I see Holy Saturday as Christ joining himself to all, I think its possible there is something real there, because Christ is secretly present and because men and women are wounded, not dead, and in their woundedness, they often glimpse something the well do not.
        I suppose Alana will think this is mystification or ecstasy — and I wrote my dissertation largely focused on Dostoyevsky, so there is that tendency, though I mix it with Thomist calm; at least that’s the plan.


        • Jonathan says:

          Yeah, we’re on the same page, Brian, I think we have been throughout. You’ve mentioned those Montgomery books before, they sound very intriguing. Had I but world enough and time. . . and money, of course.

          Liked by 1 person

    • brian says:


      The concept of mind that you articulate presumes a modern, diminished sense of reason. For medievals (before nominalism), the mind’s grasp on intelligible being would include ratio and intellectus. The intellectus involves the heart and the imagination. In some ways, your aesthetic seems akin to Stoic judgement — setting up a filter in which to manage and discern the passions. I have a bit more to say, but I will add that as a response to Jonathan below.


      • brian says:

        Ahh, well, apparently it’s response to Jonathan above. I had assumed the most recent post would show up afterwards.

        Liked by 1 person

        • AR says:

          Brian, I was notified that your comment was in response to my comment, so it worked as far as that is concerned. It’s just the way it looks that can be funny. I find the order is usually right on a personal computer and confused on a device.


      • AR says:

        Brian, before we get into this, would you mind double-checking what I actually was trying to say? My terminology may not jive with yours, but the content of my comment is based on the teaching I received when I became Orthodox. If the heart is part of the mind, then none of the spiritual teaching I’ve recieved makes sense. According to that teaching, the mind and heart are both parts of the total intellect. Normally they would work in unity, with the heart guiding the mind, but with fallenness they tend to get separated. That’s why the mind tends to calculate rather than truly reason. Since sanctification is a project of purifying the heart, and reuniting the two, practically speaking we are always in a state of flux and the mind tends to be less intellectual than it should be.

        Anyhow, the main problem with what you said is that if the heart is just part of the mind, then the mind is greater than the heart. What is the point, then, of the Orthodox teaching that the heart ought to guide the mind, and that this relationship of wholeness, with the heart taking the senior position, is what true intellect is?

        Again, I’m not certain why we’re disagreeing here and I hope it’s just terminology. Please double check and let me know if you still think I’m talking like a modern Stoic.


        • brian says:


          You are misunderstanding my point/intentions. I was not accusing you of being a modern Stoic — or an ancient one, for that matter. I merely noticed a similarity between your way of speaking and the Stoic manner of proceeding in antiquity. Augustine follows them in many regards — in the same way that Christianity borrowed and adapted aspects of neo-Platonism, etc. (It was an observation, not a disagreement.)

          I think the calculative mind is a narrow, modern fragment of mind. I don’t think the mind is greater than the heart — if this helps, I think the person comprehends the fullness of our being (mind, heart, imagination, will, etc.) I was trying to indicate that there is a pre-modern Christian concept of mind that does not espouse an antinomy between mind and heart and that it actually understands mind as comprehending the insights of heart. It’s not really all that different from the Orthodox understanding you articulate.

          The relation between intellect and heart is notoriously difficult to articulate. They are inextricably bound. (There was a controversy between Dominican followers of Thomas and Franciscans concerning the beatific vision — was it primarily intellectual or of the heart.) But that is a false controversy, for each flourishes in the other. We really do agree and I wasn’t trying to say otherwise.


          • AR says:

            Brian, I am glad to know I misunderstood. It is a relief that you don’t think I’m talking like a Stoic; only that you notice a similarity between my way of speaking and the Stoic way of speaking. I’m glad you weren’t trying to say that we disagree when you said that the concept of mind I articulate presumes a modern and diminished sense.

            That is a relief.


  15. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Friends, this has been a great discussion, but it seems to me that it’s reached a proper conclusion. Hence I’m going to close the thread.

    My thanks again to Alana for sharing her two articles on Madeleine L’Engle with us!


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