Read CHAPTER VI of The Poet's Poet, free online book, by Elizabeth Atkins, on


There was a time, if we may trust anthropologists, when the poet and the priest were identical, but the modern zeal for specialization has not tolerated this doubling of function. So utterly has the poet been robbed of his priestly character that he is notorious, nowadays, as possessing no religion at all. At least, representatives of the three strongest critical forces in society, philosophers, puritans and plain men, assert with equal vehemence that the poet has no religion that agrees with their interpretation of that word.

As was the case in their attack upon the poet’s morals, so in the refusal to recognize his religious beliefs, the poet’s three enemies are in merely accidental agreement. The philosopher condemns the poet as incapable of forming rational theological tenets, because his temper is unspeculative, or at most, carries him no farther than a materialistic philosophy. The puritan condemns the poet as lacking reverence, that is, as having no “religious instinct.” The plain man, of course, charges the poet, in this particular as in all others, with failure to conform. The poet shows no respect, he avers, for the orthodox beliefs of society.

The quarrel of the poet and the philosopher has at no time been more in evidence than at present. The unspeculativeness of contemporary poetry is almost a creed. Poets, if they are to be read, must take a solemn pledge to confine their range of subject-matter to fleeting impressions of the world of sense. The quarrel was only less in evidence in the period just before the present one, at the time when the cry, “art for art’s sake,” held the attention of the public. At that time philosophers could point out that Walter Pater, the molder of poet’s opinions, had said, “It is possible that metaphysics may be one of the things which we must renounce, if we would mould our lives to artistic perfection.” This narrowness of interest, this deliberate shutting of one’s self up within the confines of the physically appealing, has been believed to be characteristic of all poets. The completeness of their satisfaction in what has been called “the aesthetic moment” is the death of their philosophical instincts. The immediate perception of flowers and birds and breezes is so all-sufficing to them that such phenomena do not send their minds racing back on a quest of first principles. Thus argue philosophers.

Such a conclusion the poet denies. The philosopher, to whom a sense-impression is a mere needle-prick, useful only as it starts his thoughts off on a tangent from it to the separate world of ideas, is not unnaturally misled by the poet’s total absorption in the world of sense. But the poet is thus absorbed, not, as the philosopher implies, because he denies, or ignores, the existence of ideas, but because he cannot conceive of disembodied ideas. Walter Pater’s reason for rejecting philosophy as a handicap to the poet was that philosophy robs the world of its sensuousness, as he believed. He explained the conception of philosophy to which he objected, as follows:

To that gaudy tangle of what gardens, after all, are meant to produce, in the decay of time, as we may think at first sight, the systematic, logical gardener put his meddlesome hand, and straightway all ran to seed; to genus and species and differentia, into formal classes, under general notions, and with yes! with written labels fluttering on the stalks instead of blossoms a botanic or physic garden, as they used to say, instead of our flower-garden and orchard.

But it is only against this particular conception of philosophy, which is based upon abstraction of the ideal from the sensual, that the poet demurs. Beside the foregoing view of philosophy expressed by Pater, we may place that of another poet, an adherent, indeed, of one of the most purely sensuous schools of poetry. Arthur Symons states as his belief, “The poet who is not also philosopher is like a flower without a root. Both seek the same infinitude; the one apprehending the idea, the other the image.” That is, to the poet, ideality is the hidden life of the sensual.

Wherever a dry as dust rationalizing theology is in vogue, it is true that some poets, in their reaction, have gone to the extreme of subscribing to a materialistic conception of the universe. Shelley is the classic example. Everyone is aware of his revulsion from Paley’s theology, which his father sternly proposed to read aloud to him, and of his noisy championing of the materialistic cause, in Queen Mab. But Shelley is also the best example that might be cited to prove the incompatibility of materialism and poetry. It might almost be said that Shelley never wrote a line of genuine poetry while his mind was under the bondage of materialistic theory. Fortunately Shelley was scarcely able to hold to the delusion that he was a materialist throughout the course of an entire poem, even in his extreme youth. To Shelley, more truly perhaps than to any other poet, the physical world throbs with spiritual life. His materialistic theories, if more loudly vociferated, were of scarcely greater significance than were those of Coleridge, who declared, “After I had read Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, I sported infidel, but my infidel vanity never touched my heart.”

A more serious charge of atheism could be brought against the poets at the other end of the century. John Davidson was a thoroughgoing materialist, and the other members of the school, made sceptic by their admiration for the sophistic philosophy of Wilde, followed Davidson in his views. But this hardly strengthens the philosopher’s charge that materialistic philosophy characterizes poets as a class, for the curiously limited poetry which the 1890 group produced might lead the reader to assume that spiritual faith is indispensable to poets. If idealistic philosophy, as Arthur Symons asserts, is the root of which poetry is the flower, then the artificial and exotic poetry of the fin de siecle school bears close resemblance to cut flowers, already drooping.

It is significant that the outstanding materialist among American poets, Poe, produced poetry of much the same artificial temper as did these men. Poe himself was unable to accept, with any degree of complacence, the materialistic philosophy which seemed to him the most plausible explanation of life. One of his best-known sonnets is a threnody for poetry which, he feels, is passing away from earth as materialistic views become generally accepted. Sensuous as was his conception of poetry, he yet felt that one kills it in taking the spirit of ideality out of the physical world. “I really perceive,” he wrote in this connection, “that vanity about which most men merely prate, the vanity of the human or temporal life.”

It is obvious that atheism, being pure negation, is not congenial to the poetical temper. The general rule holds that atheism can exist only where the reason holds the imagination in bondage. It was not merely the horrified recoil of orthodox opinion that prevented Constance Naden, the most voluminous writer of atheistic verse in the last century, from obtaining lasting recognition as a poet. Verse like hers, which expresses mere denial, is not essentially more poetical than blank paper.

One cannot make so sweeping a statement without at once recalling the notable exception, James Thompson, B.V., the blackness of whose atheistic creed makes up the whole substance of The City of Dreadful Night. The preacher brings comfort to the tortured men in that poem, with the words,

And now at last authentic word I bring
Witnessed by every dead and living thing;
Good tidings of great joy for you, for all:
There is no God; no fiend with name divine
Made us and tortures us; if we must pine
It is to satiate no Being’s gall.

But this poem is a pure freak in poetry. Perhaps it might be asserted of James Thompson, without too much casuistry, that he was, poetically speaking, not a materialist but a pessimist, and that the strength of his poetic gift lay in the thirst of his imagination for an ideal world in which his reason would not permit him to believe. One cannot say of him, as of Coleridge, that “his unbelief never touched his heart.” It would be nearer the truth to say that his unbelief broke his heart. Thomson himself would be the first to admit that his vision of the City of Dreadful Night is inferior, as poetry, to the visions of William Blake in the same city, of whom Thomson writes with a certain wistful envy,

He came to the desert of London town,
Mirk miles broad;
He wandered up and he wandered down,
Ever alone with God.

Goethe speaks of the poet’s impressions of the outer world, the inner world and the other world. To the poet these impressions cannot be distinct, but must be fused in every aesthetic experience. In his impressions of the physical world he finds, not merely the reflection of his own personality, but the germ of infinite spiritual meaning, and it is the balance of the three elements which creates for him the “aesthetic repose.”

Even in the peculiarly limited sensuous verse of the present the third element is implicit. Other poets, no less than Joyce Kilmer, have a dim sense that in their physical experiences they are really tasting the eucharist, as Kilmer indicates in his warning,

Vain is his voice in whom no longer dwells
Hunger that craves immortal bread and wine.

Very dim, indeed, it may be, the sense is, yet in almost every verse-writer of to-day there crops out, now and then, a conviction of the mystic significance of the physical. To cite the most extreme example of a rugged persistence of the spiritual life in the truncated poetry of the present, even Carl Sandburg cannot escape the conclusion that his birds are

Summer-saulting for God’s sake.

Only the poet seems to possess the secret of the fusion of sense and spirit in the world. To the average eye sense-objects are opaque, or, at best, transmit only a faint glimmering of an idea. To Dr. Thomas Arnold’s mind Wordsworth’s concern with the flower which brought “thoughts which do often lie too deep for tears” was ridiculously excessive, since, at most, a flower could be only the accidental cause of great thoughts, a push, as it were, that started into activity ideas which afterward ran on by their own impulsion. Tennyson has indicated, however, that the poetical feeling aroused by a flower is, in its utmost reaches, no more than a recognition of that which actually abides in the flower itself. He muses,

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower but if I could understand
What you are, root and all and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

By whatever polysyllabic name the more consciously speculative poets designate their philosophical creed, this belief in the infinite meaning of every object in the physical world is pure pantheism, and the instinctive poetical religion is inevitably a pantheistic one. All poetical metaphor is a confession of this fact, for in metaphor the sensuous and the spiritual are conceived as one.

A pantheistic religion is the only one which does not hamper the poet’s unconscious and unhampering morality. He refuses to die to this world as Plato’s philosopher and the early fathers of the church were urged to do, for it is from the physical world that all his inspiration comes. If he attempts to turn away from it, he is bewildered, as Christina Rossetti was, by a duality in his nature, by

The foolishest fond folly of a heart
Divided, neither here nor there at rest,
That hankers after Heaven, but clings to earth.

On the other hand, if he tries to content himself with the merely physical aspects of things, he finds that he cannot crush out of his nature a mysticism quite as intense as that of the most ascetic saint. Only a religion which maintains the all-pervasive oneness of both elements in his nature can wholly satisfy him.

Not infrequently, poets have given this instinctive faith of theirs a conscious formulation. Coleridge, with his indefatigable quest of the unity underlying “the Objective and Subjective,” did so. Shelley devoted a large part of Prometheus Unbound and the conclusion of Adonais to his pantheistic views. Wordsworth never wavered in his worship of the sense world which was yet spiritual,

The Being that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,

and was led to the conclusion,

It is my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

Tennyson, despite the restlessness of his speculative temper, was ever returning to a pantheistic creed. The same is true of the Brownings. Arnold is, of course, undecided upon the question, and now approves, now rejects the pessimistic view of pantheism expressed in Empedocles on AEtna, in accordance with his change of mood putting the poem in and out of the various editions of his works. But wherever his poetry is most worthy, his worship of nature coincides with Wordsworth’s pantheistic faith. Swinburne’s Hertha is one of the most thorough going expressions of pantheism. At the present time, as in much of the poetry of the past, the pantheistic feeling is merely implicit. One of the most recent conscious formulations of it is in Le Gallienne’s Natural Religion, wherein he explains the grounds of his faith,

Up through the mystic deeps of sunny air
I cried to God, “Oh Father, art thou there?”
Sudden the answer like a flute I heard;
It was an angel, though it seemed a bird.

On the whole the poet might well wax indignant over the philosopher’s charge. It is hardly fair to accuse the poet of being indifferent to the realm of ideas, when, as a matter of fact, he not only tries to establish himself there, but to carry everything else in the universe with him.

The charge of the puritan appears no more just to the poet than that of the philosopher. How can it be true, as the puritan maintains it to be, that the poet lacks the spirit of reverence, when he is constantly incurring the ridicule of the world by the awe with which he regards himself and his creations? No power, poets aver, is stronger to awaken a religious mood than is the quietude of the beauty which they worship. Wordsworth says that poetry can never be felt or rightly estimated “without love of human nature and reverence for God,” because poetry and religion are of the same nature. If religion proclaims cosmos against chaos, so also does poetry, and both derive the harmony and repose that inspire reverence from this power of revelation.

But, the puritan objects, the overweening pride which is one of the poet’s most distinctive traits renders impossible the humility of spirit characteristic of religious reverence.

It is true that the poet repudiates a religion that humbles him; this is one of the strongest reasons for his pantheistic leanings.

There is no God, O son!
If thou be none,

Swinburne represents nature as crying to man, and this suits the poet exactly. Perhaps Swinburne’s prose shows more clearly than his poetry the divergence of the puritan temper and the poetical one in the matter of religious humility. “We who worship no material incarnation of any qualities,” he wrote, “no person, may worship the Divine Humanity; the ideal of human perfection and aspiration, without worshipping any god, any person, any fetish at all. Therefore I might call myself, if I wished, a kind of Christian (of the Church of Blake and Shelley) but assuredly in no sense a theist.”

Nothing less than complete fusion of the three worlds spoken of by Goethe, will satisfy the poet. If fusion of the outer world and the other world results in the pantheistic color of the poet’s religion, the third element, the inner world, makes it imperative that the poet’s divinity should be a personal one, no less, in fact, than a deification of his own nature. This tendency of the poet to create God in his own image is frankly acknowledged by Mrs. Browning in prayer to the “Poet God.”

Of all English writers, William Blake affords the clearest revelation of the poet’s instinctive attitude, because he is most courageous in carrying the implications of poetic egotism to their logical conclusion. In the Prophetic Books, in particular, Blake boldly expresses all that is implicit in the poet’s yearning for a religion which will not humble and thwart his nature, but will exalt and magnify it.

Even the puritan cannot affirm that the poet’s demand for recognition, in his religious belief, of every phase of his existence, has not flowered, once, at least, in most genuinely religious poetry, for the puritan himself feels the power of Emily Bronte’s Last Lines, in which she cries with proud and triumphant faith,

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void;
Thou, Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

There remains the plain man to be dealt with. What, he reiterates, has the poet to say for his orthodoxy? If he can combine his poetical illusions about the divinity of nature and the superlative and awesome importance of the poet himself with regular attendance at church; if these phantasies do not prevent him from sincerely and thoughtfully repeating the Apostle’s creed, well and good. The plain man’s religious demands upon the poet are really not excessive, yet the poet, from the romantic period onward, has taken delight in scandalizing him.

In the eighteenth century poets seem not to have been averse to placating their enemies by publishing their attendance upon the appointed means of grace. Among the more conservative poets, this attitude lasted over into the earlier stages of the romantic movement. So late a poet as Bowles delighted to stress the “churchman’s ardor” of the poet. Southey also was ready to exhibit his punctilious orthodoxy. Yet poor Southey was the unwitting cause of the impiety of his brothers for many years, inasmuch as Byron’s A Vision of Judgment, with its irresistible satire on Southey, sounded the death-knell of the narrowly religious poet.

The vogue which the poet of religious ill-repute enjoyed during the romantic period was, of course, a very natural phase of “the renaissance of wonder.” The religious “correctness” of the eighteenth century inevitably went out of fashion, in poetic circles, along with the rest of its formalism. Poets vied with one another in forming new and daring conceptions of God. There was no question, in the romantic revolt, of yielding to genuine atheism. “The worst of it is that I do believe,” said Byron, discussing his bravery under fear of death. “Anything but the Church of England,” was the attitude by which Byron shocked the orthodox. “I think,” he wrote, “people can never have enough of religion, if they are to have any. I incline myself very much to the Catholic doctrine.” Cain, however, is not a piece of Catholic propaganda, and the chief significance of Byron’s religious poetry lies in his romantic delight in arraigning the Almighty as well as Episcopalians.

Shelley comes out even more squarely than Byron against conventional religion. In Julian and Maddalo, he causes Byron to say of him,

You were ever still
Among Christ’s flock a perilous infidel.

Shelley helped to foster the tradition, too, that the poet was persecuted by the church. In Rosalind and Helen, the hero was hated by the clergy,

For he made verses wild and queer
Of the strange creeds priests hold so dear,

and this predilection for making them wild and queer resulted in Lionel’s death, for

The ministers of misrule sent
Seized on Lionel and bore
His chained limbs to a dreary tower,
For he, they said, from his mind had bent
Against their gods keen blasphemy.

The most notable illustration of this phase of Shelley’s thought is The Revolt of Islam, wherein the poets, Laon and Cythna, are put to death by the priests, who regard them as their worst enemies.

Burns, also, took a certain pleasure in unorthodoxy, and later poets have gloried in his attitude.

Swinburne, in particular, praises his daring, in that he

Smote the God of base men’s choice
At God’s own gate.

Young poets have not yet lost their taste for religious persecution. It is a great disappointment to them to find it difficult to strike fire from the faithful in these days. Swinburne in his early poetry denounced the orthodox God with such vigor that he roused a momentary flutter of horror in the church, but nowadays the young poet who craves to manifest his spiritual daring is far more likely to find himself in the position of Rupert Brooke, of whom someone has said, “He imagines the poet as going on a magnificent quest to curse God on his throne of fire, and finding nothing.”

The poet’s youthful zest in scandalizing the orthodox is likely, however, to be early outgrown. As the difficulties in the way of his finding a God worthy of his adoration become manifest to him, it may be, indeed, with a sigh that he turns from the conventional religion in which so many men find certitude and place. This is the mood, frequently, of Browning, of Tennyson, of Arnold, of Clough. So, too, James Thomson muses with regret,

How sweet to enter in, to kneel and pray
With all the others whom we love so well!
All disbelief and doubt might pass away,
And peace float to us with its Sabbath bell.
Conscience replies, There is but one good rest,
Whose head is pillowed upon Truth’s pure breast.

In fact, as the religious world grows more broad-minded, the mature poet sometimes appeals to the orthodox for sympathy when his daring religious questing threatens to plunge him into despair. The public is too quick to class him with those whose doubt is owing to lassitude of mind, rather than too eager activity. Tennyson is obliged to remind his contemporaries,

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Browning, as always, takes a hopeful view of human stupidity when he expresses his belief that men will not long “persist in confounding, any more than God confounds, with genuine infidelity and atheism of the heart those passionate impatient struggles of a boy toward truth and love.”

The reluctance of the world to give honor too freely to the poet who prefers solitary doubt to common faith is, probably enough, due to a shrewd suspicion that the poet finds religious perplexity a very satisfactory poetic stimulus. In his character as man of religion as in that of lover, the poet is apt to feel that his thirst, not the quenching of it, is the aesthetic experience. There is not much question that since the beginning of the romantic movement, at least, religious doubt has been more prolific of poetry than religious certainty has been. Even Cowper, most orthodox of poets, composed his best religious poetry while he was tortured by doubt. One does not deny that there is good poetry in the hymn books, expressing settled faith, but no one will seriously contend, I suppose, that any contentedly orthodox poet of the last century has given us a body of verse that compares favorably, in purely poetical merit, with that of Arnold.

Against the imputation that he deliberately dallies with doubt, the poet can only reply that, again as in the case of his human loves, longing is strong enough to spur him to poetic achievement, only when it is a thirst driving him mad with its intensity. The poet, in the words of a recent poem, is “homesick after God,” and in the period of his blackest doubt beats against the wall of his reason with the cry,

Ah, but there should be one!
There should be one. And there’s the bitterness
Of this unending torture-place for men,
For the proud soul that craves a perfectness
That might outwear the rotting of all things
Rooted in earth.

The public which refuses to credit the poet with earnestness in his quest of God may misconceive the dignified attempts of Arnold to free himself from the tangle of doubt, and deem his beautiful gestures purposely futile, but before condemning the poetic attitude toward religion it must also take into account the contrary disposition of Browning to kick his way out of difficulties with entire indifference to the greater dignity of an attitude of resignation; and no more than Arnold does Browning ever depict a poet who achieves religious satisfaction. Thus the hero of Pauline comes to no triumphant issue, though he maintains,

I have always had one lode-star; now
As I look back, I see that I have halted
Or hastened as I looked towards that star,
A need, a trust, a yearning after God.

The same bafflement is Sordello’s, over whom the author muses,

Of a power above you still,
Which, utterly incomprehensible,
Is out of rivalry, which thus you can
Love, though unloving all conceived by man
What need! And of none the minutest duct
To that out-nature, naught that would instruct
And so let rivalry begin to live
But of a Power its representative
Who, being for authority the same,
Communication different, should claim
A course, the first chosen, but the last revealed,
This human clear, as that Divine concealed
What utter need!

There is, after all, small need that the public should charge the poet with deliberate failure to gain a satisfactory view of the deity. The quest of a God who satisfies the poet’s demand that He shall include all life, satisfy every impulse, be as personal as the poet himself, and embody only the harmony of beauty, is bound to be a long one. It appears inevitable that the poet should never get more than incomplete and troubled glimpses of such a deity, except, perhaps, in

The too-bold dying song of her whose soul
Knew no fellow for might,
Passion, vehemence, grief,
Daring, since Byron died.

A complete view of the poet’s deity is likely always to be as disastrous as was that of Lucretius, as Mrs. Browning conceived of him,

Who dropped his plummet down the broad
Deep universe, and said, “No God,”
Finding no bottom.

If the poet’s independent quest of God is doomed to no more successful issue than this, it might seem advisable for him to tolerate the conventional religious systems of his day. Though every poet must feel with Tennyson,

Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they,

yet he may feel, with Rossetti, that it is best to

Let lore of all theology
Be to thy soul what it can be.

Indeed, many of the lesser poets have capitulated to overtures of tolerance and not-too-curious inquiry into their private beliefs on the part of the church.

In America, the land of religious tolerance, the poet’s break with thechurch was never so serious as in England, and the shifting creeds of the evangelical churches have not much hampered poets. In fact, the frenzy of the poet and of the revivalist have sometimes been felt as akin. Noteworthy in this connection is George Lansing Raymond, who causes the heroes of two pretentious narrative poems, A Life in Song, and The Real and the Ideal, to begin by being poets, and end by becoming ministers of the gospel. The verse of J. G. Holland is hardly less to the point. The poet-hero of Holland’s Bitter Sweet is a thoroughgoing evangelist, who, in the stress of temptation by a woman who would seduce him, falls upon his knees and saves his own soul and hers likewise. In Kathrina, though the hero, rebellious on account of the suicide of his demented parents, remains agnostic till almost the end of the poem, this is clearly regarded by Holland as the cause of his incomplete success as a poet, and in the end the hero becomes an irreproachable churchman. At present Vachel Lindsay keeps up the tradition of the poet-revivalist.

Even in England, the orthodox poet has not been nonexistent. Christina Rossetti portrays such an one in her autobiographical poetry. Jean Ingelow, in Letters of Life and Morning, offers most conventional religious advice to the young poet. And in Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House, one finds as orthodox a poet as any that the eighteenth century could afford.

The Catholic church too has some grounds for its title, “nursing mother of poets.” The rise of the group of Catholic poets, Francis Thompson, Alice Meynell, and Lionel Johnson, in particular, has tended to give a more religious cast to the recent poet. If Joyce Kilmer had lived, perhaps verse on the Catholic poet would have been even more in evidence. But it is likely that Joyce Kilmer would only have succeeded in inadvertently bringing the religious singer once more into disrepute. There is perhaps nothing nocuous in his creed, as he expressed it in a formal interview: “I hope ... poetry ... is reflecting faith ... in God and His Son and the Holy Ghost.” But Kilmer went much farther and advocated the suppression of all writings, by Catholics, which did not specifically advertise their author’s Catholicism. And such a doctrine immediately delivers the poet’s freedom of inspiration into the hands of censors.

Perhaps a history of art would not square with the repugnance one feels toward such censorship. Conformance to the religious beliefs of his time certainly does not seem to have handicapped Homer or Dante, to say nothing of the preeminent men in other fields of art, Phidias, Michael Angelo, Raphael, etc. Yet in the modern consciousness, the theory of art for art’s sake has become so far established that we feel that any compromise of the purely aesthetic standard is a loss to the artist. The deity of the artist and the churchman may be in some measure the same, since absolute beauty and absolute goodness are regarded both by poets and theologians as identical, but there is reason to believe that the poet may not go so far astray if he cleaves to his own immediate apprehension of absolute beauty as he will if he fashions his beliefs upon another man’s stereotyped conception of the absolute good.

Then, too, it is not unlikely that part of the poet’s reluctance to embrace the creed of his contemporaries arises from the fact that he, in his secret heart, still hankers for his old title of priest. He knows that it is the imaginative faculty of the poet that has been largely instrumental in building up every religious system. The system that holds sway in society is apt to be the one that he himself has just outgrown; he has, accordingly, an artist’s impatience for its immaturity. There is much truth to the poet’s nature in verses entitled The Idol Maker Prays:

Grant thou, that when my art hath made thee known
And others bow, I shall not worship thee,
But as I pray thee now, then let me pray
Some greater god, like thee to be conceived
Within my soul.