The Reclaiming of a Great Tradition

I want to recommend these three collections of poetry to the casual reader as a wonderful way to explore our literary tradition, especially in its Catholic and Christian dimensions, and to do so in a way that will beget wonder and pleasure rather than frustration and fatigue.

(Images: HFS Books, Gracewing, Paraclete Press)

Let me begin by sharing two observations, one made by me, the other by the poet Dana Gioia.

The first is this. Some years ago, a young man wrote to me, stating that, after a technical and highly specialized education, he now desired to understand the Western intellectual tradition, but just thinking of all its canonical authors, he became overwhelmed and could do nothing. Where, among those great shelves of books one sometimes finds untouched and dusty in an otherwise tidy living room, could he begin?

My reply was intended to comfort and encourage, but it was also entirely sincere. He could acquire a sound map, a solid outline, of that tradition simply by reading four books: Plato’s Symposium, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, John’s Gospel, and Augustine’s Confessions. Was there much more to learn? To be sure. Was the outline a bare one? It was certainly not exhaustive. But in those few books one finds sufficient study for a lifetime and, as was once said of the philosophy of Plato alone, all the rest is footnotes.

The second, as I say, comes from Dana Gioia. In his most celebrated and controverted essay, “Can Poetry Matter?”, Gioia notes that just decades ago poetry was a much more popular art form than it is today. Fewer new books of poetry were published, but these were reviewed in the daily newspapers. America was a “smaller, less affluent” country as well, and if an American home had any poetry on the shelf, it perhaps consisted of a collected poems by a major author, or a large anthology, drawing together the best poems by the best loved poets. Literary education was cheap, easy, and popular even if it was less “sophisticated” than the contemporary graduate seminar.

The truth of Gioia’s observation was brought home to me a few years ago, when I flipped through the anthology that the poet T.S. Eliot grew up reading, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Eliot will be best known to most people as the author of The Waste Land, that famously allusive and elusive poem, whose four-hundred-thirty-three lines include roughly one hundred quotations from other writers. One had to have a doctorate to trace down all those sources, one might be tempted to say. Perhaps. Or one could simply have a copy of Palgrave’s and find most of them.

I have long thought our age needs a new Palgrave’s, that is to say, a simple way in which the curious but intimidated aspirant reader can find a way into the poetic tradition of the West, just as that young man had wanted to find his way into its intellectual tradition. At last, we have just such a thing, or something like it. We have three smaller books rather than one big one. I want to recommend them to the casual reader as a wonderful way to explore our literary tradition, especially in its Catholic and Christian dimensions, and to do so in a way that will beget wonder and pleasure rather than frustration and fatigue.

I am recommending these books, not reviewing them. In two of them, some of my work appears; for the other, I was the editor and publisher. Without pretending to be disinterested, I can at least insist that I am honest in drawing attention to works that I think are of great importance in themselves, will reward the casual reader’s attention, enrich the imagination, and which finally will be remembered as important stones in the rebuilding and renewal of our Western Christian literary tradition. Between the three books, one can gain an education in three parts: the whole scope of the European poetic tradition from its classical roots to the turn of the twentieth century; the great English poetic tradition from its earliest poems and prayers up to the present; and a snapshot of the poetry of our own increasingly promising age.

All three books have in common their publication by religious presses and that is not incidental. As our wider culture continues its decline and disintegration, it will only be those whose lives are ordered to something that transcends themselves who continue to read serious literature. Literature is formative of the soul and, naturally, it is those who actually believe they have souls who will be most concerned with its formation. While it may seem that the mainstream of the literary world has taken a decisive turn toward a new sort of religion, or none at all, in fact the large publishers know from their sales figures that it is the religious who read books.

In the case of the three books I here recommend, their religious dimension does not reduce them to a small niche of pious hymns or precious devotions at a remove from the great existential themes of the best literature. To the contrary, their religious dimension jams open the gates to those themes, keeping, or largely keeping, the work included from falling prey to that increasingly narrow, withered, and parochial obsession that has done so much to harm our literature—identity politics. These are books that explore the whole scope of human experience, from the depths to the heavens.

The first is the one I had a hand in publishing, the poet Ryan Wilson’s Proteus Bound: Selected Translations, 2008-2020. Decades ago, the American poet Robert Lowell published a small book of poetic translations he called Imitations. The title was meant to suggest that Lowell was not merely translating the work of the masters, from Homer forward, but that he was transmuting their work to make it almost an original work of his own; Lowell, as it were, ventriloquized the great poets but expressed himself. Wilson’s volume does something of that but at a far vaster scale and without sacrificing the original poets’ meaning for the sake of personal expression. What we find in this book, whose earliest poets include Homer and Alcman, and whose most recent are Rainer Maria Rilke and Paul Claudel, is a wide vision of the poetic tradition of the West that has shaped the translator’s soul only because it first gave form to an entire civilization. Classical and Christian civilization are summed up in these pages and presented to us as our great, living literary tradition.

Wilson’s translations of the classical Latin poets are especially distinguished, as they bring out that distinctly Roman unity of irreverence and passion with austere rhetoric and witty control. A brief epigram from Catullus provides one such instance:

I hate and love. How do I do it, you might ask. I’m at a loss.
And yet I feel it happening, and I’m hung on the cross.

And here is Wilson’s Horace, like so many Romans enchained to the city and yet dreaming of retreat:

Happy the man, far from the business world,
Who like the first men tends,
With his own oxen, to his father’s fields,
And neither borrows, nor lends,
Nor like the soldier rouses to the trumpet,
Nor trembles when rough seas roar,
Avoiding, too, the forum and the threshold
Of the proud patron’s door . . .

Another translation from the Latin, Virgil’s fourth Eclogue is worth quoting for several reasons, not least because it expresses the profound theme of the book as a whole. The whole of the literary tradition, including its classical figures, belongs to the mind that is Catholic, because all that is good anywhere finally belongs to the Catholic tradition. This openness to what is good and willingness to receive beautiful things in themselves while incorporating them into a greater whole is characteristic of the book and the tradition it represents. In the case of Virgil’s poem, some readers will know, Christians for centuries read it as the Roman poet’s unknowing prophecy of the coming of Christ. One reason Dante takes Virgil for guide in The Divine Comedy is that Virgil draws the classical and the Christian worlds together in these lines:

The mighty pattern of the centuries is born anew.
The Virgin now returns, and Saturn’s reign returns now, too;
Now a new generation down from heaven’s height descends.
Favor this newborn child, in whom an Iron Age now ends,
O chaste Lucina, and through whom a Golden Age again
Shall rise throughout the world: your own Apollo now shall reign.
This glorious age shall enter, while your consulship’s in session,
Pollio, and the mighty months commence their great procession;
Under your guidance, should some vestiges of our great error
Remain, they shall be voided, freeing earth from endless terror.
This infant shall receive divine life, and he shall behold
Gods mix with heroes, and he shall be seen among that fold,
And by his Father’s virtues he shall rule the globe in peace.

A new creation; a turn in historical age iron to gold; hints of a virgin birth; redemption from error; and an infant’s divine life uniting God and man and bringing at last to the world the law of “peace.” How could the monks of medieval Europe have read these lines and thought of anything but Christ? In any case they did not; they recognized Virgil and through him Roman civilization as a preparation of and anticipation of the coming of Christendom.

Wilson translates Dante as well, and that modern Catholic poet of the Inferno, Charles Baudelaire. He captures well the great Catholic poets of the renaissance, from Petrarch and Michelangelo to Luis de Góngora and Fray Luis de León. In doing so he gives us a Catholic tradition that spans both time and space, one that exceeds the bounds of any one language and yet which will be instantly familiar and fluent to the contemporary ear. Whereas Lowell gave us, in the guise of a tradition, mostly his own troubled self, Wilson has returned us to a tradition greater than ourselves.

Something similar may be said of Edward Short’s Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse. Intended primarily as a textbook for school children, just as was Palgrave’s, Short has accomplished much more. Including Dana Gioia’s forward, an essay called “Christianity and Poetry,” the anthology offers a rich vision of the English poetic tradition, particularly with reference to those poems that are at once formally ingenious, musical, and capable of entering into the mystery of things.

Some of Short’s choices will strike some readers as odd, given the title. Thomas Hardy was no Christian, nor was Philip Larkin; Percy Bysshe Shelley got himself kicked out of school for writing a treatise called The Necessity of Atheism. But the poems included will resonate with those who have a capacity for the life of the spirit. Hardy’s classic “The Oxen” recounts the nostalgic power of the Nativity to summon hope even in the unbeliever, while Larkin’s “Church Going” is one of the great religious poems of the twentieth century, in part because it speaks of an outsider looking in on what he cannot quite fathom. The poet, out on his bicycle, stops by a country church after Sunday services have concluded. In the empty church he wonders at what he does not believe and yet also knows that here is found the one truth worth believing. The poem concludes its reflection on the church:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Short is best known for his studies of John Henry Newman and his extensive work as a book critic. Both have trained him well to have an excellent ear for the kind of real rhetorical beauty we find in Newman’s prose and in the other great prose writers of the nineteenth century. In happy consequence, he seems incapable of including an ugly poem or any poem that fails to overwhelm the reader with its own gorgeousness. Mary Herbert’s immensely important translations of the Psalms appear alongside the poems they soon inspired: Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the poems of John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughn. Among these are the great seventeenth-century devotional poets who remain the greatest achievement of English lyric poetry.

Most contemporary anthologies would exclude the verse of Newman, Coventry Patmore, or Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, as they do not anticipate the fragmentary and opaque experiments of modernism that did much to encourage the average reader to find something else to read besides poetry. But Short knows these are the kinds of poets that those who like poetry at once musical and profound will appreciate, and so they are given generous space in these pages. Eliot is here, and rightly so, as the difficult modernist became, with Four Quartets, one of the great Christian poets of the tradition, but so are Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, James Phillip McAuley, Charles Causley, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Jennings, and Helen Pinkerton.

Who are they? They are the poets just before and long after the disruptions of poetic modernism who demonstrated poetry could still be a thing of intellectual wonder and audible joy. Dowson’s best poems are little known but perfectly crafted expressions of the mystery of religious life. Dowson was by disposition an epicure who somehow found himself drawn to the beauty of the Catholic Church and converted. Here is how his poem on Carthusian monks begins:

Through what long heaviness, assayed in what strange fire,
Have these white monks been brought into the way of peace,
Despising the world’s wisdom and the world’s desire,
Which from the body of this death bring no release?

Within their austere walls no voices penetrate;
A sacred silence only, as of death, obtains;
Nothing finds entry here of loud or passionate;
This quiet is the exceeding profit of their pains.

Wilbur was the greatest American poet of the second half of the twentieth century (for the first half, the title goes to either Eliot or Robert Frost, who for some reason is excluded here). McAuley was Wilbur’s counterpart in Australia, while Causley was one of England’s most celebrated poets, in large part because he maintained its great ballad tradition, as in the beginning of this humorous poem:

Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.

Helen Pinkerton was one of America’s most exacting Catholic poets, whose austere short poems gave expression to the metaphysical vision of Thomas Aquinas. Elizabeth Jennings, who first attained some degree of fame through her association with Philip Larkin, eventually became the great Catholic poet of England. She is not well known now, but I expect our descendants to consider her the master of an age. She wrote more than most people will have time to read, and so Short has done Jennings service by selecting a few of her best poems. Her brief “Clarify” runs:

Clarify me, please,
God of the galaxies,
Make me a meteor,
Or else a metaphor

So lively that it grows
Beyond its likeness and
Stands on its own, a land
That nobody can lose.

God, give me liberty
But not so much that I
See you on Calvary,
Nailed to the wood by me.

Short’s anthology is an education in itself, clarifying for the new reader the best of our tradition.

Christian Poetry in America Since 1940, edited by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas, is, in contrast, a family portrait. Like all family portraits, the differences and tensions sometimes appear more boldly than the resemblances and kinships. We find gathered here poets who write exclusively or mainly in free verse, such as the three who open the volume: Paul Mariani, Diane Glancy, and Jeanne Murray Walker. We find also poets who, like most of those included in Short’s anthology, retain the practices of prosody, such as Marilyn Nelson, Robert B. Shaw, David Middleton, Timothy Murphy, and Jennifer Reeser.

Most of the poets included were known to me, some of them old favorites, such as William Baer, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Christian Wiman, and John Poch. The editors often, however, included poems that I had overlooked or failed to appreciate before and in this brought even those old favorites back to life. Mark Jarman’s “Questions for Ecclesiastes” and Andrew Hudgins’ “Praying Drunk” stand out as major achievements whose dramatic power earn our serious attention. I want to quote, however, the opening of a shorter Hudgins’ poem that has a similar seriousness to it. It is called “Beatitudes”:

Blessed is the Eritrean child,
flies rooting at his eyes for moisture. Blessed
the remote control with which I flipped on past.
Blessed the flies whose thirst is satisfied.
Blessed the parents, too weak to brush away
the vibrant flies.

Another poet who was almost a rediscovery for me was the late Timothy Murphy. Up to the very day of his death from cancer, in 2018, Murphy was a prolific poet. Too prolific perhaps. I have on my shelf bound volumes he had made at the local copy shop of poems he intended to publish, had contracted to publish, but never saw into print because of his early death. He was the sort of writer who might send his friends a new poem several times a week. It can be hard to sort the best work from the merely virtuosic and the merely reducant. Here is a Murphy prayer that strikes me as an almost perfect poem, called “Soul of the North”:

Out of the wilds, I pray.
Bound by my northern birth
to fish, to hunt the earth
and follow my forebears’ way,
I mutter I have sinned,
wander the knee-high grass,
flourish awhile and pass
whistling into the wind.

As char swim in the clear
tundra rivers that run
under the midnight sun,
as wolves follow the deer
drawn from ford to ford,
as clamorous geese in V’s
throng to the thawing seas—
all creatures of one accord—
my soul thirsts for the Lord.

The second-to-last poet included in this anthology is none other than Ryan Wilson. I think that is expressive of the idea I have been trying to explore here. Wilson’s translations and Short’s anthology are surveys of an ancient and extensive tradition; that tradition continues to bear fruit in the work of living poets committed to giving artistic form to the human encounter with divine mystery that is the final justification of the importance of literature in our lives. A recovery of the riches of that tradition, the capacity to hold it in the palm of our hand, is a good in itself and a good begetting still other goods, as it helps makes possible the work of new writers.

These books recover that tradition in concise, convenient form for the contemporary reader, but they also promise that it is a vital and continuing one, undeterred by the broader failings of our civilization. They are books to see souls through the dark age already upon us and to help us look ahead to our emergence from it at some time that only God now knows.

Read them.

Proteus Bound: Selected Translations, 2008-2020
By Ryan Wilson
Franciscan University Press, 2021
Paperback, 224 pages

The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse
Edited by Edward Short
Forward by Dana Gioia
Gracewing, 2022
Paperback, 412 pages

Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology
Edited by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas
Paraclete Press, 2022
Paperback, 208 pages

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About James Matthew Wilson 22 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).

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