A Formal Fracture: Poets and Theologians

Tom Millay reviews Anthony Domestico’s Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period

Anthony Domestico. Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. 185pp. $29.95
In the interwar years of 1922-1939, T.S. Eliot published a modernist literary magazine that consistently reviewed contemporary works of theology. The Criterion can list Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, Niebuhr’s An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, and Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy among the books treated. These reviews were serious, thoughtful pieces of intellectual journalism. It is no wonder that when Marianne Moore writes to Elizabeth Bishop in 1937, she can assume that Bishop will know whom she is talking about when she mentions the name “Karl Barth.” The interwar years were a special period in the history of poetry and theology. Through periodicals such as Eliot’s, conversation was staged between poets and theologians of a quality and depth that has rarely been the case either before or after these years.

Anthony Domestico’s Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period explores this unique time of interaction between poets and theologians. In so doing, he unearths and examines connections that are steadily becoming more widely acknowledged but not nearly to the extent that they should be. The mistaken assumption that the modernists were secular is withering, but there is not yet a full breadth of scholarship to replace that assumption; what is needed is a close look at the theology that these poets were reading and how theoloy worked its way into their verse. With chapters on Eliot, David Jones, and W.H. Auden—chapters that reference Barth, Maritain, de la Taille, Niebuhr, and Charles Williams—Domestico admirably fills this gap in scholarship. The chapters on Eliot and Jones are the most successful, in that they show theology’s influence on the poetic forms used by these two poets.

Eliot’s Criterion was famously—and scurrilously—branded by Ezra Pound as a Neo-Thomist “clearing house for conservative politics and religious orthodoxy.” Domestico convincingly demonstrates the falsehood of this claim. First, there is no such thing as a “Neo-Thomism,” as the reviews in the Criterion amply demonstrate. Instead, there are many neo-Thomisms, each with a particular take on relations between art and belief. Second, the Criterion reviewed and was open to the influence of many different contemporary theologians, including Charles Maurras’s conservative endorsement of Roman Catholicism, but also the work of Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the humanist neo-Thomism of Jacques Maritain.

Pound’s label has the potential to distort not only the Criterion but also the interpretation of Eliot’s poetry itself, which is considerably more complex than a reductive interpretation of Eliot’s beliefs might imply. Some of the most evocative and innovative paragraphs of Domestico’s book concern the interplay between a Barthian dialectical theology and a neo-Thomist sacramental theology that takes place in Eliot’s poetry itself. The fragmented poetry of The Waste Land and the Four Quartets is described by Domestico as performing a dialectical theology of crisis that is longing for—but never quite reaching—a sacramental theology of stability.

The images Barth uses in the Epistle to the Romans track well with Eliot’s poetry. Where Barth describes Revelation as “the crater made at the percussion point of an exploding shell,” Eliot describes his poetry as “a heap of broken images.” But it is not a matter of shared images alone: “For both poet and theologian,” Domestico writes, “historical fracture demanded formal fracture.” Neither poet nor theologian arrive at a settled sense of meaning or possession of the Good in their work. Parataxis is used far more frequently than logical narrative exposition: one image rapidly succeeds another, such that the reader can never grasp any moment securely. This is just as true of the constant onward rush of the Epistle to the Romans as it is of The Waste Land, and the result is that these two writers do not only write about crisis: they make the reader feel crisis.

If one were to walk away from Domestico’s book under the impression that he is simply arguing for a shared sentiment between modernist theologians and poets, though, one would be mistaken. This shared feeling of crisis between Barth and Eliot is based on a shared theological concept: namely, the notion that this temporal world is under the judgment of eternity, and that any moment of divine presence is always punctiliar and fleeting.

This conceptual connection highlights one of Domestico’s key points: the modernist poets read the modernist theologians precisely because these theologians thought—that is, they gave specific articulation to theological concepts and dogmas and showed their applicability to contemporary concerns. Both the modernist poets and the modernist theologians were fed up with the exaltation of feeling in the 19th century study of religion, and both desired more than this anemic fare was able to give. And notably—through both shared networks and individual creativity—they were able to make this “more” happen.

This conceptual connection also links the poet-artist David Jones to a constellation of theologians contemporary to him, though it is a connection of considerably different content than what sustains the Barth-Eliot dialogue. One of the most well-known features of the modernist aesthetic is a refusal of art-as-representation, of art-as-mirror to the world; this is a dissatisfaction that David Jones fully shares. The modernists held that the purpose of art is not to refer to something else, but to create an event in-and-of-itself. Jones finds inspiration for this theory of aesthetics in the Eucharist. The Jesuit theologian Maurice de la Taille held that the celebration of the Eucharist folded time into itself, with Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the everyday celebration of the sacrament becoming one temporal reality. In this sense, the Eucharist is not a memorial; it is a re-presentation of the original event that makes the original event truly present, or absorbs the present into a continuum that has never really become past, or creates access to an underlying reality always available but not always perceived. In short, the Eucharist is not a reference to a previous event; it is event.

This conceptual background to the Eucharist, taken from de la Taille’s The Mystery of Faith, allows Jones to make an analogy to the practice of modernist poetics. His poems were not written to make reference to outside realities, i.e.: this poem is about pain, this poem is about the battle of the Somme, this poem is about ancient Germanic tribal dress. Instead, each poem enacts these realities as event; it makes them present. As Jones says about art, “This is not a representation of a mountain, it is ‘mountain’ under the form of paint.”

Such a sacramental understanding of the poetic event works its way down into the most basic elements of poetic form: words. Domestico’s commentary here is worth quoting:

Jones wrenches words into new functions with astonishing regularity. Words usually used as nouns become adjectives or verbs; simple present tense verbs shift into the present progressive tense… Through this grammatical wrenching, Jones creates a poetics of torsion—a style that is defined by the tension and strain of words stretching beyond their normal functions. But turning nouns into verbs, he blurs the line between thing and action; by finding constant recourse to the progressive tense, he stretches temporal boundaries so that delimited actions become continuous actions. In doing this, Jones makes his poetry presentational rather than propositional. Just as the priest brings the sacred past into the present again in the form of the Eucharist, so for Jones the poet, through grammatical and syntactical contortions, turns static, referential words into active, re-presentative words—words that enact rather than refer, that embody a kind of temporal plenitude that is impossible in everyday language.

One of Jones’s favorite words to perform such a transformation upon is “bright”; one often finds the verb “brights” or “brighting,” such as in The Anathemata where Jones writes of ancient paintings in a French cave: “And see how they run, the juxtaposed forms, brighting the vaults of Lascaux.” Instead of talking about cave paintings, Jones makes the painting happen in the reader’s mind, makes the cave into an event; and he does it through his twisting of ordinary language. And when such an event happens for the reader, a similar act to the Eucharist is being performed.

Theology has therefore embedded itself at the heart of Jones’s verse, and it is in such fine-grained attention to the intersection of theology and poetic form, all the way down to the “micro-level,” that Domestico’s book is at its most compelling.

Unfortunately, sustained reflection on poetic form cannot be found in the final chapter, on W.H. Auden. There is interesting material here on how Reinhold Niebuhr’s ironic theology of history informs poems like “For the Time Being” and “Memorial for the City,” but Domestico does not discuss how this might affect the way Auden writes poetry. In this case, theology seems only to matter in terms of the themes treated. I wonder what, for example, Domestico would make of the rapid shifts between serious lament and comedic irony in Auden; these juxtaposed themes are highlighted, but influence on poetic form is not noted. Be that as it may, the reader is only disappointed at this point of the book on account of the quality of the previous chapters, which so deftly balance attention to theology, the thematics of a poem, and that poem’s distinctive formal features.

This triangulation leaves out an important fourth aspect of Domestico’s book, with which he begins and ends: the fact that these lively conversations between theologians and poets were happening in literary magazines. If, as Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman argue, “modernism began in the magazines,” this is indeed a crucial fact. It makes one wonder: what was it about these theologians and poets that made them want to speak to each other? How did theology become involved in the making of such innovative, avant-garde art? What kinds of commitments, both temporal and financial, are necessary to cultivate such conversation between theologians and poets?

Such questions as these will haunt the reader interested in both theology and poetry long after setting down this book. There is certainly no easy way to replicate the environment of the interwar period, but Anthony Domestico is to be commended for implanting such a desire in his readers. Perhaps some of these readers will be stirred to action. I for one would love to hold a contemporary equivalent to the Criterion in my hands, and I believe that Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period succeeds in that it will make others want this as well.

Thomas J. Millay is a Ph.D. student in Theology and Christian Ethics at Baylor University in Waco, TX. A forthcoming article on the ethics of Kierkegaard and Hegel will be published in Modern Theology. He has previously published articles in the Scottish Journal of Theology, the International Journal of Systematic Theology, and Telos. His dissertation is concerned with Kierkegaard’s asceticism.