James Matthew Wilson
Some years ago, while I was still an undergraduate student of modern poetry, a professor of mine, who was an observant Jew, came to class one afternoon in a mood either pensive or disturbed. On the agenda for the day was discussion of Wallace Stevens’ (1879-1955) most beautiful early poem, “Sunday Morning.” That particular work fell with a certain irony on the course calendar, said the professor, for he had himself just spent two days in synagogue celebrating Rosh Hashanah. How discomfiting, he confessed, to return to the classroom, having just meditated on God’s dynamic romance with human beings, in order to discuss the great poem of modern atheism.
We had begun the semester with readings from Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). The first, Whitman, was of course the poet laureate of American civic religion, in which the prophet heralds a new age to be manifest in a new nation; the form of Old Testament revelation remained, but hollowed out, its content replaced with the romance of national identity, its eschatology fulfilled in the coming of democracy to ravish the virgin landscape. The second, Hardy, was no less the poet laureate of Old Europe, of an English skepticism cobbled, or rather clobbered, into existence through the failure of the Enlightenment project and the inassimilable challenges to human identity brought about by developments in the materialist natural sciences and the primitive social sciences.
One could, I am sure my professor knew, trace an easy narrative from the English poet of theological doubt and the American poet of national theology to that suave neo-pagan poem of Wallace Stevens. One would emerge with a narrative of modern poetry as explicitly post-Christian in tow, where poetry becomes a repository for religious doubt and longing for the sacred alike, even as literature and society are unproblematically acknowledged as “secularized.”
We could, he told us, trace another line in modern poetry. We might start with Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), that American poet of radical belief at the margins of experience. And we might begin also with Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), the English poet whose encounter with the same intellectual ferment that had led Hardy to skepticism led him into the Catholic Church and, indeed, the Jesuit Order. Hopkins richly admired Whitman’s poetry, but saw that its romantic ecstasies only made sense in the light of Christian faith. Such a tradition would culminate, said the professor, in perhaps Eliot’s Four Quartets, Auden’s “For the Time Being”, or perhaps even in the projective verse of Denise Levertov. Such a study would reveal that the modern literary tradition is one composed substantially of religious verse, wherein even the poetry of atheists aspires to worship in light and truth. This proposal of an alternate corridor through modern poetry seems to have satisfied my professor, and so, after a pause, he turned to the poem at hand.
However, this mournful glance down the road not taken did not sit well with me. As a matter of practicality in teaching or scholarship, one may feel pressed to winnow down the vast cadre of modern poets so that modernism itself emerges as a “secular” phenomenon or as a Christian one; it may, for that matter, appear as a popular and democratic event, or as a hieratic, even gnostic, affair for the Parisian café or the Bloomsbury salon. But, how does modern poetry appear if we refuse to bifurcate its career through the last century? If we acknowledge that some narrative must emerge, we may nonetheless insist on its satisfying us only to the extent that it proves demonstrably comprehensive. What becomes of modern poetry, that is, if Hopkins sits by Hardy, if Dickinson invites Whitman into her solitude, and finally, if Eliot and Stevens are given each their prominent place in our analysis of modernism as they are in our anthologies and literary histories? The answer to this question requires naturally that we view the work of various modern poets not merely as competing for how a moment in literary history ought to be interpreted, but as a-swim in the same intellectual sea, and as bumping into each other, responding to, reacting against, and in any instance drawing on, the same cultural and spiritual ferment.
I have argued elsewhere that artistic modernism in general has something to it of the incipiently Catholic. Modernist art sought both to strike against modernity—whether we call it “secular,” “rationalist,” “capitalist,” or “materialist”—and to find a place for divinely constituted meaning and order within the modern condition. It did so by drawing in myriad ways on the Catholic traditions of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the hierarchical ordering of human experience that reflects the continuity between God and nature made manifest in the Church as the spiritual body of Christ. One finds such borrowings in varying degrees of conviction and accomplishment, but even in the poems of so unlikely a character as William Carlos Williams they lie inchoate, the light of potential epiphany glimmering along the edges of the lines.
What I would like to consider here is not the philosophical reliance of modernism on Catholic concepts, but rather the curious historical intersection of modern American poetry and Catholicism. One might expect the modernism of, say, James Joyce (1882-1941) to reflect the author’s upbringing in the culture of Catholic Ireland. For related reasons, one might expect American poetry, like American culture generally, to display threads of Protestantism and post-Protestant culture. And, of course, one does find such threads in the weave. However much I may contend modernism in general is incipiently Catholic, I would not dare suggest that American poetry as a whole can be so easily described. Nevertheless, historians for years have remarked the curious dialectic within American culture, between its indigenous Protestant roots and the image of European, therefore foreign, Catholic culture.
As T.J. Jackson Lears demonstrated almost three decades ago, this dialectic manifested itself most plainly in the neo-gothic church architecture of the late nineteenth century. Protestant churchmen during this period sometimes attributed the decline of their denominations to the austerity of Protestant liturgy and the cultural hortus siccus their doctrines seemed to germinate. They therefore sought to reformulate that culture through a series of aesthetic borrowings from Catholic Europe. The use of stained glass in church decoration, the appearance of liturgical choirs capable of chanting with the best of the Benedictines, have their source in this borrowing. But, the raising of neo-gothic bell towers over Presbyterian, Episcopal and Methodist cornerstones, for very practical reasons has proven the most enduring such phenomenon. In my old neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana, I could walk to two very nice Catholic churches, one drawing on Italian renaissance architectural traditions, the other on American colonial. If I walked only two blocks on, I would run across an Evangelical church whose squat, haunting stones looked almost more medieval than Notre Dame de Paris, and a Methodist Church designed to seem more ancient than the conscientiously modern sect occupying it. These buildings represent an attempt to borrow a form of beauty related to, but in practice radically suspicious of, the ideas of the good and the true that subsist in Catholicism.
In American literary history, this borrowing of Catholic beauty without entirely going in for Catholicism’s ideas of truth and goodness (or indeed its understanding of their relation to beauty) found its most patent manifestation in Henry Adams’ Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. For Adams (1838-1918) and many other Americans, European gothic architecture expressed the perfect order of medieval Catholic society and what we would now call its “analogical imagination,” wherein the invisible truths of God are symbolically iterated in the sensible things of creation, from the forms of natural beauty and sublimity to the “grandchild” forms of artworks. During America’s “Gilded Age,” when the patina of Christian principles that had given meaning to modern mass democracy began to flake away, and when novel biological, geological, and historical theories seemed to have reduced the natural world to a snarling sign of extended struggle without final issue, this image of a perfect society, symphonically ordered and harmonious with polysemantic layers, enchanted the nostalgic imagination of Adams and many others. The squat neo-gothic churches of Victorian Presbyterians testify to this nostalgic indulgence, even as they reaffirm the almost unbridgeable intellectual divide between an individualist creed suitable to a modern, bourgeois market society, and a corporatist one suitable—as far as they were concerned—only for a society ordered to the twin absolutisms of “throne and altar” in a lost, primitive age of feudal romance and innocence.
Such churches thus give mute testimony to a dialectic between Arcadian longing and confidence in material progress, between a rarified concept of beauty (pulchritude) and a pullulating modern mass culture that self-declared realists, such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), insisted was the ambivalent but inevitable truth of “what must be.” To put the dialectic more historically: American identity, like English identity before it, had been founded on a suspicion of Catholicism in all its forms, and consisted of a series of positive attributes—“rugged individualism” for instance—derived from that suspicion. But, as confidence in the role the United States was “intended” to play in Providence rusted, as the end of history reached out into the vast emptiness of space, the ornaments of Catholic Europe, though primarily nostalgic in charm, became also the seeds of new life for which American Protestants, devout or secular, grubbed.
Plainly enough, this dialectic could operate best only outside of a Catholic country or the Catholic Church. Adams may tour the monasteries and Cathedrals of high medieval France, but he remained at heart a Boston Brahmin. The Methodist remains a Methodist, even if the sun shining on his pews through a rose window reminds him of the rose of Heaven in Dante’s Paradiso. One can sometimes see it at play in American Protestant poetry, for instance in some of the neo-gothic ballads of Emily Dickinson. But what is particularly significant is the way in which this medievalism, this nostalgia, plowed the field for some important American poets of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whose literary vocation actually led them through religious conversion to Catholicism, or who, in several important instances, were baptized though not necessarily believing Catholics, playing up the long-established tension between Catholic and American identity in order to critique the latter and to construct their art within the cosmic scaffold of the former.
George Santayana (1863-1952) stands out as the prototype of those who shifted this tense dialectic of the American and the Catholic from without to within Catholicism itself. The famous “Catholic atheist of Harvard,” Santayana challenged the materialism and rationalism of American culture from the perspective of a native-born Spaniard, catechized in the traditions and doctrines of European Catholicism. One of Santayana’s famous aphorisms neatly summarizes his critical-philosophical project. “There is no God,” said Santayana, “and the Blessed Virgin Mary is His Mother.” Like his predecessors and colleagues at Harvard, including Adams, Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), Josiah Royce (1855-1916), and William James (1842-1910), Santayana found traditional theism all but impossible in consequence of the difficulties the modern sciences—or a more ancient philosophical materialism—seemed to pose to its claims. And yet, he saw that certain human societies had constructed splendorous civilizations on the bare rock of the meaningless natural world. His own Catholic ancestors, particularly Dante, Michelangelo, and other Christian Platonist poets of the late-medieval and Renaissance worlds, had designed beautiful edifices expressing mankind’s natural desire for the transcendent within the endless drama of the failure to attain it. For Santayana, this beauty was an adjunct of ethics, of the good. A materialist himself, he did not actually believe in the truths of Christ or Plato. He believed rather that the cultural system which most nobly and inspiringly harnesses our natural longing, and conceals our desolate predicament, was for that reason good. Dante’s Thomistic, hierarchical universe, because of its aesthetic beauty, was good, whereas the early humanist and un-religious world of Shakespeare, because disordered, was in some sense evil. These notions would profoundly influence Stevens, especially in his “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction.” The first poet of modern American atheism owes much to the aesthetic Catholicism of Santayana.
Catholicism as a Stevenian “supreme fiction,” or any such fiction, cannot long endure in the face of mankind’s natural desire for truth. Santayana could sustain his “atheist Catholicism” primarily because it was a means of critiquing the bourgeois inadequacies of turn-of-the-century New England through an impossible Arcadian vision of the beautiful society. But lest one think that Christianity would give out, while the notion of fiction remain, we should recall that Stevens converted to the Church on his deathbed. Moreover, Santayana’s juniors by several decades, the modernist poet, Allen Tate (1899-1979), and late modernist, Robert Lowell (1917-77), provide a more striking lesson.
Tate came under the influence of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land while still an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt, and the poem inspired him immediately to embrace the novelty of modernist poetics and to decry the ruins and fragments of modernity itself. Even in the nineteen-twenties, he was writing poems and essays that longed for the social order to be found in romantic depictions of the Middle Ages, and for the intellectual order present in the theology and philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, the revival of whose work was just reaching its zenith. Tate drew on the forms of Thomistic thought and Catholic tradition as an outsider, much as Adams had before him, during the first decades of his career. But early, he arrogated the authority of an insider, much like Santayana, attacking American, specifically Yankee, philistinism in the persona of the Southern aristocrat, exiled from his true social order by a foreign oppressor. Conversely, Tate’s most searing criticism of the Old South was that it failed to become a complete society insofar as it failed to accept the Catholic faith as its organizing principle. Had the South been Catholic and aristocratic, American history would have unfolded, as it were, more slowly and would have been less susceptible to the destructive forces of modern industrialism. He would seek to redeem the history of his people: eventually he would convert to Catholicism, with Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), that most celebrated of French Catholic philosophers, as his Godfather.
Lowell converted as a young man, under the influence of another convert, Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a former radical journalist and founder of the personalist, sometimes anarchistic, Catholic Worker Movement. Taking a page from Day and Tate alike, Lowell unleashed his new-found Catholic identity as a means of critiquing the stuffiness and narrowness of his Boston Brahmin ancestry. His earliest poems, in The Land of Unlikeness, realize an aspect of modern verse nascent in it from the beginning: the unification of the symbolism of the French Symbolistes with the ever-recurrent Incarnation of the Divine Logos as an individual creature in the Eucharist. Only in subsequent years would this sacramental form of poetic truth give way to a version of truth grounded purely in the authenticity of the individual confessional voice for which Lowell is best known. Lowell would persist in his critical project, attacking the injustices of America’s material empire, but he would do so from the perspective of the raw, unmediated personal voice.
The opening poem of Life Studies (1959), “Beyond the Alps,” would testify to Lowell’s continued belief in the individual person, the body itself, but not in its incarnation of the larger corpus of Christian doctrine. “When the Vatican made Mary’s Assumption dogma, / the crowds at San Pietro screamed Papa,” Lowell writes. “But who believed this? Who could understand?” The promulgation of an arcane Marian doctrine by the Catholic Church would have struck the early Lowell as affirmation of a divine monarchic order whose queen was the Blessed Virgin Mary. But here, in the years just following his apostasy, Lowell envisions such pageantry not as a sign of a kingdom transcendent of, but enfolding, this world, but as so much kitsch embedded within, indeed a mere perpetuation of, the mass culture of modernity he now saw as figuratively spread across the Alps, beyond his native America to the bankrupt West in general. He rejects all pretenses of order. The self, that Protestant touchstone ne plus ultra, has a certainty of value, but is inadequate to establish order. And yet he retains and mutates the analogical imagination of his early Eucharistic poetry, and of Catholic tradition as a whole. Lowell had merely redrawn the lines of analogy, so that the images and outrages of the external world referred no longer to a transcendental system called Truth, but come to be outward signs of his own inner anguish. Many of his subsequent poems would look to history as a genealogy of his own inner self, and to his bio-graphy, the scripture of a life, as the revelation of truth. Confession and Communion are no longer separate sacraments for Lowell, but at least one sacrament always would remain.
We might tell similar stories of the careers of Thomas Merton (1915-68) and William Everson (1912-1994), both of whom, like Lowell, would experiment with the “raw” styles of mid-century free verse and the open lines of the Beats. Merton is remarkable because of his complete entrance into the contemplative life of a monastery, whereas Tate’s and Lowell’s conversions were, in some respects, of a more standoffish and intellectual variety that betrays their cultural debt to Adams. Everson, a Dominican monk for two decades, conversely, merits attention because of his spectacular shedding of the cassock—literally disrobing in front of a large crowd at one of his poetry readings—suggesting the dissolution of a tension that had been with poetic modernism from the beginning. The sophisticated compression of novelty and tradition in modernism, often made manifest through a radical style that refreshed a reactionary content, loosened and finally fell apart in the ‘sixties. Everson’s “Beat” poetry witnesses to the impossibility of holding together the distinctly modern cult of self-expression and the long traditions of the Catholic Church.
The loose verses Everson composed in northern California, much like the pop art silk screens of Sister Mary Corita in Los Angeles, serve as aesthetic analogues of the enthusiasm American Catholics would demonstrate for assimilation into mainstream American culture in the years after the Second Vatican Council. Everson’s fame as the “beat friar,” in other words, testifies at once to a failed effort to Catholicize America, and a sadly successful movement to Americanize Catholicism. Nevertheless, I refer you to the poetry of Paul Mariani, Mary Karr, and, in a consummate way, Franz Wright as examples of contemporary efforts to mediate between the loosening of the verse line and the towering forms of Roman Catholic faith, between the exigencies of the individual voice calling out to the world, and the voice of the Divine Logos itself speaking the world into being. As American Catholics complete their assimilation into the cultural mainstream of strip malls and identity politics, a poet like Mariani demonstrates that the idiom of American free verse may remain inflected with the Italian Catholicism of turn-of-the century New York ghettos. We all know of the phenomenon of confessional verse begun by Lowell but persisting to this day in American letters. Mariani, Karr, and Wright suggest that such confessionalism is not necessarily a post-Christian perversion of the sacrament of Confession, but continuous with it.
If I may speak of these last poets as part of the confessional tradition, another tradition also obtains—one whose inheritances from high modernist symbolism stand out more clearly. This I would call the Sacramental or Eucharistic tradition. The taut forms of Lowell’s early poetry and much of Tate’s (not to mention the work of Eliot) provide touchstones for a poetry in which prosody might serve (as St. Augustine believed it to do) as one of those iterations of the analogical imagination, where the minutia of five sequenced iambs reflect an order that infinitely transcends them. Unsurprisingly, the poets in this tradition owe specific, if frequently unmentioned, debts to the revival of Thomism early in the last century. I think, in part, of Dana Gioia and William Baer. But I would especially highlight the often overlooked work of Helen Pinkerton and John Finlay whose poetry has brought out in brilliant, austere poems make explicit the Thomism already present in the plain-style lyrics of their shared master, Yvor Winters. And finally, I should cite as eccentric but important cases the work of Frederick Turner and Ned Balbo. Turner seeks to re-ground and justify for a contemporary audience the analogical imagination by showing how it satisfies the logic of philosophical naturalism. Outside a select, distinguished circle, his efforts have not been well received: some read his work as pseudo-science while others see it as indulging in scientism, but I would propose it should be considered in light of the robust understanding of created nature articulated so powerfully in Aquinas and in the theology of Joseph Ratzinger.
A very different poet from Turner in all things but the use of meter, Balbo’s lyrics frequently explore, from the position of one post-modern and adrift, those eerily solid objects of popular Catholic devotion, so that in an age of kitsch the once vulgar and denigrated piety of earlier times becomes theologically serious. His work has received positive critical attention in recent years, but what remains to be seen is whether his work will issue in a vision of Catholicism that surpasses the place where Lowell left it: as the stuff of memory and confession.
A wide range of what I would call American Catholic poets exist apart from these Confessional and Eucharistic traditions. These two traditions testify, however, to the attenuated yet persistent practices of earlier poets like Tate and Lowell. Catholicism exists in itself and, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has argued, we distort it the moment we fail to let its revelation interpret itself independent of the intellectual frameworks the mind of man may generate on its own. And so, it certainly need not be interpreted or practiced in light of the dialectic I have outlined here. But in the American context, Catholic writing does admit to being understood in terms of this dialetic. And so, we should not be surprised, even in our self-consciously and supposedly post-modern age, to discover writers who persist in allying the poetic voice and the craft elements of meter and rhyme with the authorial order and analogical imagination of the Catholic Church. For those poets, Catholicism’s reality per se also makes possible what we might call Catholicism toward another. They remind their native American culture that there is an order and meaning to this world above the marmoreal heights of a democratic state, far deeper than the asphalt of the modern market, and far more enduring than the sunny concrete of Wallace Stevens’ suburban patio.