Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief is gone?
—Philip Larkin, “Church Going”
Most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.
—Matthew Arnold, “The Study of Poetry”
Prayers and poems share an uncanny family resemblance. In fact, they look so much alike at times they could be thought of as identical twins separated in childhood. Like Shakespeare’s Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, they began life together, were rent apart by circumstance, are frequently taken for each other, and, upon re-acquaintance, immediately apprehend in each other a profound genetic identity.
The common origins of poetry and prayer date back at least to the second millennium B.C., when the two functioned seamlessly as one expression. The oldest extant scripture, the Rigveda—a collection of metrical Sanskrit hymns—was composed around 1500 B.C. The custodians of the Vedas were Brahman poet-priests, who performed the sacred texts and their related rituals (which, for participants, often included draughts of Soma, a concoction of hallucinogens that was “like butter and milk milked from the living clouds”). At least no one was driving back then.
As Philip and Carol Zaleski write in Prayer: A History (2005), the sacred rites of these ancient believers were on a far-out, Coleridgean order of visionary ecstasy, complete with flashing eyes, floating hair, and generous portions of Paradisiacal milk. “Under the influence of Soma,” the Zaleskis explain, “the words of prayer become perfected speech, the language of paradise.”
One question the Rigveda poses is “What was the meter, what was the invocation, and the chant when all the gods sacrificed the god [in the fire sacrifice of creation]?” In other words, What was the poem? Or, as the Zaleskis put it, “How shall we pray?” The key lay in the “shining speech” of the Brahman poet-priests, without whose “unique power to utter the holiest mantras, the sacrifices could not be performed properly and the world would fall back into chaos and darkness.” Prayer, they suggest, was the “libretto of sacrifice.”
In A Political Philosophy (2007), the English philosopher Roger Scruton argues that, as humans, “we instinctively connect the sacred with the transcendental, seeing holy places, times and rituals as windows onto another realm . . . which we try to explain through theological doctrine, but which always in the end deludes our attempt to describe it.” This is where poetry comes in.
Mystics are bound by words, just like everyone else. Expressions of mystery typically raid poetry’s standard tool kit, largely for its ability to think metaphorically, to push language beyond hackneyed formulations, and to transmit an emotional charge through music and rhythm. Not infrequently, mystics are themselves poets. Of St. John of the Cross, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain wrote that “very often saintly souls who have had the experience of spiritual things have also received the graceful gift of speaking of it in a beautiful, persuasive and luminous way.”
Poetry’s linguistic precision, memorability, and transportive power are the stuff of the Psalms, haiku, and the BhagavadGita. As Scruton writes elsewhere, through ritual the worshiper is “freed for a moment from the world of objects, flowing freely into a ‘mystic communion’ with the other subjects who worship at his side.” Prayer is the believer’s primary avenue to such mystic communion, and many poems—by Hopkins, Herbert, Donne, Eliot, and others—either take the form of prayers or have this prayer-like effect.
The poet and monk Thomas Merton called prayer “a raid on the unspeakable,” and poetry drinks from the same well, adding to our store of what is sayable. Poetry’s ability to urge language, though music and metaphor, beyond the bounds of conventional, ratiocinative connections, has always been one of its elemental features. As someone once said, “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling/ Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,” and so on. Poetry has the ability to give to the ineffable “a local habitation and a name”; prayer employs the same strategies. As C. S. Lewis wrote regarding the poetic aspect of prayer: “Trust the purport of the images every time. For our own abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modeling of spiritual reality in legal or chemical or mechanical terms.”
As for poetry in English, it’s difficult to imagine Chaucer expounding rhymed pentameters while zoned-out on hallucinogens, though a “draughte of Londoun ale” might have helped get his juices going. English devotional poetry plays in a more sober register generally, though it does not stint on mystery for all that. The earliest poem for which we have a record in English is Cædmon’s “Hymn,” a seventh-century product of the Anglo-Saxon oral tradition preserved by the Venerable Bede:
Holy Maker who hoisted the heavens
To roof the heads of the human race,
And fashioned land for the legs of man,
Liege of the worldborn, Lord almighty.
This version, by A. Z. Foreman, maintains the alliterative strong-stress meter of the original (intended for singing) and highlights Anglo-Saxon poetry’s ability to remain rooted to the earth even as it invokes the supernatural. Like the Rigveda, Cædmon’s poem is a song of creation; unlike the Rigveda it is not liturgical but, rather, the words of an illiterate cowherd.
English poetry has always addressed a wide range of subjects, both high and low. Yet throughout its variegated history, there has remained a constant stream (expanding at times to a sweeping floodplain) of poem-prayers, by both clerics and the laity. Such verses readily partake of the forms and structures of prayer—vocative, apostrophe, litany—as well as its many modes: petition, intercession, thanksgiving, adoration, etc.
In the Renaissance, of course, devotional poetry went viral, with landmark religious poems by Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, Greville, Sidney, Southwell, Spenser, Mary Herbert—the list goes on. The poetry of the Elizabethans could be raucous and worldly, even world-weary. Take Raleigh’s “The Lie,” for example, in which he rebukes the world and its corrupt institutions. Then there is the sexual candor of Caroline poems like Thomas Carew’s “The Second Rapture,” which extols worldly pleasures—“Give me a wench about thirteen”—in ecstatic religious terms. (This habit of speaking of sex in terms of God, and vice versa, provoked J. V. Cunningham’s memorable epigram: “If God is love then by conversion/ Love is God and sex conversion.”)
Despite their earthy conventions (or, rather, through them), these poets invoked the divine directly and with vigor. Their poems availed themselves of the immediacy of prayer, a condition which the Renaissance cleric Lancelot Andrewes described as “a familiar conference withGOD. By it, we talke with him (as it were) face to face.”
Perhaps the most well-known description of prayer in Renaissance poetry is George Herbert’s “Prayer (I),” with its associative series of jeweled metaphors:
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth . . .
Herbert’s poems do not hesitate to enter into the “familiar conference with God” described by Andrewes. In such poems, the distinction between poetry and prayer becomes very blurred indeed. Herbert’s “Love (III),” for example, begins “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,” and moves to this striking conclusion: “‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’/ So I did sit and eat.” The poem recounts an exchange between the poet and Love (God) that achieves the “face to face” condition of prayer, and it was as a prayer that the philosopher Simone Weil came to see the poem. Weil had “Love (III)” committed to memory and recited it to herself during her debilitating migraines. The poem, she wrote, “played a big role in my life, for I was busy reciting it to myself at the moment when, for the first time, Christ came to take me. I believed I was merely resaying a beautiful poem, and unbeknownst to myself, it was a prayer.”
This raises an interesting question: Are poems and prayers the same? Weil distinguishes between the two, then suggests the possibility of one becoming the other. This seems right to me. As close as these identical twins appear, it is usually possible to tell them apart. For one thing, poems and prayers have different ends: the end of a poem is aesthetic communication, the end of a prayer is God. Liturgy works to tune the soul; poetry works to tune the emotions. The two become almost indistinguishable, however, when the experience conveyed by the poem is the poet’s experience of God. What, if anything, differentiates Robert Louis Stevenson’s splendid poem “Prayer” from a prayer outright?
I ask good things that I detest,
With speeches fair;
Heed not, I pray Thee, Lord, my breast,
But hear my prayer.
I say ill things I would not say—My heart is evil in Thy sight:
Regard my breast, Lord, in Thy day,
And not my prayer.
My good thoughts flee:
O Lord, I cannot wish aright—
Wish Thou for me.
The sentiment, the address, even the theology of the poem are unassailable as a prayer of supplication and petition. If there is one aspect that seems more poem-like than prayer-like, it is the witty rhetorical movement of the poem, which revises each attribute—breast, prayer, thought, wish—until, at poem’s end, all these “abide in Thee.” The brilliance and ingenuity of the expression competes for our attention with the experience of spiritual communion. This is slightly at odds, perhaps, with the Maritains’ definition of prayer: “an attraction of the soul towards Him, for the sake of Him.” Not, in other words, for the sake of art. Still, as Weil’s experience suggests, with the correct intention the function of the object may shift and a “mere” poem become the best of prayers.
Despite some grim prognostications about the future of belief, prayer has persisted in modern and contemporary poetry. Was Matthew Arnold correct that “the Sea of Faith” has ebbed from the modern world? It depends on whom you ask. Scruton, in his ongoing debate with evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins, has a lot to say on the subject, most of it very melancholy indeed:
Since the Enlightenment, science has been capturing territory from religion, explaining the cosmos and our tiny corner of it in ways that make no mention of a supernatural plan. And for two centuries religion has been gradually giving way, accepting that now this feature of our world, now that one, could be accounted for without reference to God’s purpose.
Part of what has receded for Scruton is the poetry of prayer: “Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh.”
The late Christopher Hitchens could always be counted on to drive home the same point, but with relish. In God Is Not Great (2007), he writes, “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard—or try to turn back—the measurable advances that we have made.” By contrast, believers like Scruton doubt science’s ability to address the mysteries of human existence.
For Arnold, the recession of faith and the rise of science created a great opportunity for poetry. “The future of poetry is immense,” he waxed in “The Study of Poetry” (1880),
because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialized itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.
He then puts an even finer point on it: “Most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry. Science, I say, will appear incomplete without it.”
In “Church Going,” the agnostic Philip Larkin cannot quite bring himself to imagine a clear-cut end to belief: “Power of some sort or other will go on/ In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;/ But superstition, like belief, must die,/ And what remains when disbelief is gone?” He concludes by describing the gravitational pull of faith that, however attenuated, continues to draw us.
Statistically speaking, the death of faith has been greatly exaggerated. According to a survey cited by Andrew Greeley in 1991 that covered the previous fifty years: “nine out of ten [people] pray weekly, one out of two pray daily, and one out of four pray several times a day. The data depicts a spiritual populace, seeking God in prayer, looking for a special way to relate to the divine.” (More recent polls by Gallup and Pew show that the vast majority of Americans account themselves believers.)
American poetry reflects such widespread belief. A very partial list of twentieth-century American poets in whose work prayer figures importantly includes T. S. Eliot, William Everson, John Berryman, E. E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Richard Wilbur, Andrew Hudgins, Mark Jarman, Langston Hughes (the list could fill a column). What has changed, I would suggest, is not the quantity of poets writing poem-prayers but the quality of the faith they suggest. As the Zaleskis argue, by the time Emily Dickinson began writing, “experimentation and heterodoxy had become the order of the day”:
Prayer is the little implement Through which Men reach Where Presence—is denied them— They fling their Speech
By means of it—in God’s Ear— If then He hear— This sums the Apparatus Comprised in Prayer—
How different this is from Herbert’s figures for prayer. When Renaissance poets expressed doubt, their doubts were ultimately overcome by God, as in Herbert’s “The Collar”: “But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild/ At every word,/ Me thoughts I heard one calling, ‘Child’:/ And I reply’d, ‘My Lord.’” The quality of doubt in much contemporary poetry is more intractable, often expressing a frustration at the absence of God.
If "Dover Beach" was a shot across the bow of belief in the modern age, then Stevens's "Sunday Morning" was a crushing broadside:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead? What is divinity if it can come Only in silent shadows and in dreams? Shall she not find in comforts of the sun, In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else In any balm or beauty of the earth, Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
This vision of Stevens (a death-bed convert to Catholicism) is far bleaker even than Larkin's, who despite his doubts continues to attend to the myesteries of faith, however weakened.
The melancholy resignation with regard to the loss of faith in “Sunday Morning” set the tone for much of what came after it. Interestingly, prayer-poems have persisted undiminished in terms of numbers (a recent poll of friends revealed a list as long as my arm). What’s new are the persistent notes of doubt and irony. Kay Ryan’s splendid “Blandeur” manages to balance genuine petition with the pain of the unconsoled:
If it please God, let less happen. Even out Earth’s rondure, flatten Eiger, blanden the Grand Canyon.
The poem ends with a heartfelt plea that suggests a certain God-weariness:
Unlean against our hearts. Withdraw your grandeur from these parts.
Weldon Kees’s “Small Prayer” plays in a similar register, adapting a rhythm from Donne’s “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” Kees asks not God but Time for healing grace:
Change, move, dead clock, that this fresh day May break with dazzling light to these sick eyes. Burn, glare, old sun, so long unseen, That time may find its sound again, and cleanse Whatever it is that a wound remembers After the healing ends.
Some younger poets, such as Christian Wiman, address contemporary challenges to faith head-on, then move beyond them: “God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made,” Wiman writes. His “Small Prayer in a Hard Wind” concludes (with another echo of Donne): “shatter me God into my thousand sounds . . .” Wiman’s collection Every Riven Thing contains some of the most affecting devotional lyrics in recent poetry.
The question that remains, then, is, Why do prayer-poems persist? It’s partly because of the resilience of faith itself and of the innumerable struggling believers who continue to write poems. Also: one mustn’t discount the strength of the form; poetry and prayer have been allied traditions from the beginning.
Or was Voltaire right that “if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”? The Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz suggests as much in “On Prayer.” “You ask me how to pray to someone who is not,” he begins. “All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge/ And walking it we are aloft.” Milosz suggests that something in the act of prayer itself continues to draws us, despite our uncertainty:
. . . every one, separately, Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh And knows that if there is no other shore We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
Larkin puts it even more compellingly at the end of “Church Going.” It is our innate desire, he suggests, to be more “serious” about questions of life and death that leads us to renew our search for divinity through poetry:
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.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 8, on page 29
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