Faith in Poetry

by Michael D Hurley, Bloomsbury, 240pp, £70

When GK Chesterton wrote a biography of William Blake for the Men of Letters series in 1910, he opened it with the following paradox: “All the biggest events of Blake’s life would have happened before he was born.” Going a step further, he said that Blake would have agreed. “If Blake wrote the life of Blake it would not begin with any business about his birth or parentage … it would have begun with a great deal about the giant Albion … and the lions that walked in their golden innocence before God.”

Chesterton makes the case that both Blake’s religious sensitivities and his poetic programme grew out of his faith in what “happened before he was born”, in the existential dramas recorded in the Old and New Testaments.

Barring some important exceptions (like Chesterton), much of 20th-century literary criticism subordinated the faith and religious experiences of writers to sociological and political paradigms, theories and concerns – thus no longer treating poets as whole persons. Moreover, criticism touching on faith’s role and influence often proposed that emerging modern societies experienced the twilight of God’s presence. J Hillis Miller’s influential The Disappearance of God (1963) especially helped augment this trend of identifying “the withdrawal of God from the world” as a fundamental theme in Victorian and early 20th-century poetry.

However, especially in the last three decades, literary scholars, theologians and historians of religion, among others, are increasingly qualifying the idea that modernity birthed a process of near totalising secularisation. In what is now often termed our “post-secular age”, thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Rowan Williams and Jean-Luc Marion show that a sense of the sacred did not withdraw from culture as radically as has been assumed. Among such recent scholarly recoveries concerning the interplay between literature and theology, Hurley’s Faith in Poetry: Verse Style as a Mode of Religious Belief is a significant contribution.

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