Christopher N. Phillips on William Cowper’s suffering and (artistic) triumphs
On Volume 149 of the Journal, I talked with Christopher N. Phillips about his book, The Hymnal: A Reading History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). One of the things we talked about was the question of what distinguishes hymns from other forms of poetry.
Phillips points out in his book (and in our conversation) that Dr. Johnson, among others, established “something of a wall between hymn and poem.” In Samuel Johnson’s view, the “sublimity and perfection of religion and particularly the God it worshiped, could only defeat attempts to dress it” in any imaginative form. In Johnson’s words, “The topicks [sic] of devotion are few, and being few are universally known; but few as they are, they can be made no more; they can receive no grace from novelty of sentiment, and very little from novelty of expression. . . . Omnipotence cannot be exalted; Infinity cannot be amplified; Perfection cannot be improved.”
This view captures something of the impersonal austerity of eighteenth-century notions of the relationship between knowing and feeling, notions that the Romantic movement would challenge. Phillips notes that “even as Johnson developed his views [on this matter] . . . a new poet was emerging whose work would challenge Johnson’s assumptions.” That poet was William Cowper (1731–1800, and pronounced “Cooper”), whose work was discussed back on Volume 52 by English professor Daniel Ritchie, author of The Fullness of Knowing: Modernity and Postmodernity from Defoe to Gadamer (Baylor University Press, 2010).
Here is Phillips’s summary of how Cowper broke down the wall (allegedly) separating hymnody and poetry.
“A London barrister by profession, Cowper had written little poetry and published none by the time he met John Newton. Given to bouts of severe depression that would drive him to several suicide attempts, Cowper left his work to convalesce in the rural Buckinghamshire parish of Olney, where the already-famous Newton was curate. The slaver-turned-priest quickly formed a close friendship with Cowper, counseling him through the aftermath of a nervous breakdown and discovering a poetic gift in his ailing parishioner. Newton had for some time been composing hymns as meditations on Scripture to accompany his sermons; his church was a poor one, and many of his parishioners could not read, so the hymns gave them something to take home, reinforcing his weekly messages. He proposed that Cowper join him in producing a collection of hymns for the use of the parish, though Newton’s considerable fame owing to his popular memoirs made it likely that the collection would gain a wider audience. Cowper agreed. While the original plan was for both men to contribute an equal number of hymns, Cowper suffered another breakdown, limiting his contribution to sixty-seven texts compared to Newton’s 219 in Olney Hymns (1779). The collection included Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’ and texts such as ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,’ which was much more popular than ‘Amazing Grace’ in the nineteenth century. Cowper’s texts were interspersed throughout, marked simply with a C to indicate his authorship.
“As James Montgomery asserted in an introduction first published in an 1829 reprint of Olney Hymns, hymnody produced Cowper the poet. Hymn writing was initially Cowper’s means to psychological recovery. Following the depression that disrupted his hymn writing at Olney, Cowper again turned to poetry at the suggestion of his friend Lady Austen to aid his recovery. The results of this new wave of writing amounted to a literary sensation. Cowper’s two-volume Poems appeared in handsomely printed London octavos in 1782 and 1785, the first mainly consisting of rhapsodic odes, the second nearly filled by his multicanto poem, The Task, still considered his most important work. New editions of Cowper’s works were frequent, especially after his death in 1800, and continued for decades, yet by far his most-read works were not The Task or his odes, but rather his hymns. ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way,’ ’O for a Closer Walk with God,’ ‘There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood’ — these hymns anticipated the individuality of the Romantic lyric as much as poems like Cowper’s ‘The Castaway,’ but their directness and relevance to Christian spirituality made them favorites in Anglican churches and Baptist revival meetings alike. For the first time, a writer at the poetic forefront of his day was also contributing substantially to churches’ sung repertoire across the Anglophone Atlantic.”
Book 3 of Olney Hymns — originally published as On the Progress and Changes of the Spiritual Life — includes the text of a six-stanza hymn by William Cowper called simply “Retirement.” It is not about the life of leisure following a long career of labor, but about the retirement enjoyed by those, for example, on spiritual retreat. The few hymnals that include this hymn identify it by its first line: “Far from the world, O Lord, I flee.” Cowper also wrote an 800-line poem called “Retirement,” in which he explored in great detail what his friend John Newton described as “the worldliness pleasure.” You can read the hymn and part of the poem here.
David Lyle Jeffrey on the poetic character of the voice of God
Some time back, I had a conversation with a pastor about a theologian whose work had excited some controversy. “I just wish he didn’t use so many metaphors,” he exclaimed decisively, this last word uttered (as I recall) with a vehement sense that some sacred standard had been violated. I immediately thought of replying, “Because God does,” but quickly realized that there was no room here for argument.
After telling his provocative story about a sower who went out to sow, Jesus received a sour complaint from his disciples. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” One wonders what they thought of all of the poetic speech ascribed to God in the Scriptures. The word of the Lord as spoken by his prophets is so energized with poetic power that John Donne once described God as a poet, “a very figurative and metaphorical God.”
Chapter one in David Lyle Jeffrey’s book Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (discussed on Volume 149 of the Journal) is called “Poetry and the Voice of God.” In it, after citing many passages from both Testaments — including the remarkable and sobering imagery from the book of Revelation — he asks what we are to make of this manner of expression in what is obviously a matter of deep consequence.
“At the least, we are obligated to see that one of the many ways in which God’s thoughts are above our own, his ways ‘higher’ than our ways, is his preference for a mode of discourse that is the very opposite of simple indicative prose or reductive proposition: it is exalted, not casual. Though some much prefer plain speech in a series of commandments that could be mastered in a system, the God whose voice booms through the prophets, in Job, and in the vision of John, as in the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, does not so limit himself. Figural speech, irony, riddling aphorisms, paradoxes, melismatic Hebrew parallelism, metaphor, and story upon story are what we get instead. Caveat lector — it turns out that in neither Testament, when he is describing disclosing his nature and purpose, does the Lord of heaven and earth always talk like we do. In our own culture’s terms, God does not talk like a lawyer, a philosopher, or even a theologian, let alone a TV talk-show host. Very often, however, he speaks like a poet. We might wish it otherwise, or be lulled into imagining that the Word of God should be coming to us in the lingo of the coffee shop or the faux-authoritative patter of the newscast, but we would be hard-pressed to find much warrant for that in Scripture. The fact that God speaks poetry when the issues are most weighty suggests that appreciating his poetry might be an essential element in our knowledge of God; that is, we should understand him as a poet — the originary poet — the One who writes the world.”
“Beginning in the twentieth century, biblical translations have tended toward a more prosaic rendering, and the fashionable imposition of culturally chic paraphrases has deadened many an ear to the actual rhetorical manner of divine self-disclosure, which is seldom colloquial. The tendency to make it so is not exclusively a modern presumption; in our time, however, it has been the poets more often than the preachers who have heard the divine Voice in something more akin to its original register, and have responded in the spirit of admiration and respect. One of the goals of this study is to consider how poets have frequently been in this sense better translators, not least in that so many have understood intuitively that the manner of divine speech in Holy Scripture is not incidental to the matter of it. Certain Christian poets in particular have discovered that understanding something of the poetry of divine speech in the Bible gives us knowledge of the Holy that we can ill afford to be without if we truly wish to understand, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, ‘him with whom we have to do’ (Heb. 4:13). In short, if the witness of Scripture as it comes down to us is to be heeded, one of the most appropriate routes to a competent biblical theology may require us to get out of our prosy habits of mind and, at least occasionally, rise up and into the poetry of God.
“To some readers it may seem an infelicity that I have just used the figurations ‘down’ and ‘up’ to suggest a distinction between our usual way of speaking and the dominant way Scripture represents God speaking — awkward because today we resist hierarchies, even in genre, and typically see ‘leveling down’ as a virtuous activity and elevated speech of any kind as something of an affront to our democratic sensibilities. This is among the reasons that poetry in our culture has fallen into neglect in comparison to a century or so ago. Sometimes poetry is now seen as a kind of elitism; in yet other contexts, it is sometimes seen as childish. Ironically, both forms of denigration capture something true about poetry, but in a way that misses the point as we need to address it here — namely, that God seems disposed to use poetry in communicating with us concerning who he is.”
“Succinctly, a poem is a certain form of words, sometimes rhythmic or musical in character, in which meaning arises indirectly, not only from the lexical denotation of its constituent words but also from a synthesis of rearrangement such that new insight or fresh appreciation results. For ancient writers it is essentially alieniloquium, saying things in an unexpected or strange way. Almost everyone recognizes, even if deprived by poor education of familiarity with poetry, that poetic speech is not merely different from normal speech, but that socially it is often intended as a ‘higher’ way of communicating. There are analogues in other spheres of life. At festival seasons, our table may be furnished with tableware (such as fine china) that we don’t use every day. Guests at such times, even if they have no personal liking for a beautifully set table or are intimidated by the challenge of which fork to pick up for the salad, will understand at once that this tableware has been ‘set apart’ for special occasions, the best that the family’s hospitality can offer. Things ‘set apart’ (the literal meaning of the Hebrew qodesh, ‘holy,’ is just that, ‘set apart’) have the potential to elevate us all when we learn to understand and enjoy them as special gifts.”
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Read “Becoming a serious and receptive reader” for an excerpt from David Lyle Jeffrey’s essay “Read Wisely, Read Well.”
David Lyle Jeffrey offers a thoughtful reading of C. S. Lewis’s account of thoughtful reading
One of the guests on Volume 149 of the Journal was David Lyle Jeffrey, talking about his book Scripture and the English Poetic Imagination (BakerAcademic, 2019). An earlier collection of essays by Jeffrey, Houses of the Interpreter: Reading Scripture, Reading Culture (Baylor, 2003), includes a chapter titled “Reading Wisely, Reading Well.” In it, Jeffrey writes that the task of reading well requires “two apparently contradictory virtues — intellectual toughness and imaginative sympathy. To put this paradox another way, the mature or faithful reader (they are the same person) is one who simultaneously employs both disciplines of the analytical mind and generosities of an open heart. That the disciplines should be as rigorous as the generosities amiable is the sine qua non of a fine reader. In lesser readers there is usually a notable imbalance to one side or another.”
The rest of the essay contains Jeffrey’s reflections on what made C. S. Lewis such a good reader, with some insights from Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism (1961) about the act(s) of reading. Jeffrey offers a summary of “Lewis’s account of the two balanced elements in mature reading. He regards both elements as essential. The first is that self-forgetful and submissive abandonment to the authority of the text which one sees in an intelligent child. The second comes later: that disciplined, informed, and discerning questioning of the text which is the work of an educated mind.
“Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism is an attempt to distinguish ‘true’ or ‘literary’ readers from ‘unliterary’ ones in this sense: his ‘true’ or ‘literary’ reader reads ‘every work seriously in the sense that he reads it wholeheartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can,’ since, as Lewis says, ‘the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.’
“‘Bad,’ or ‘unliterary’ readers, by contrast, never get self out of the way. In practice they do not even much like reading — often for pretty much the same reason they do not like listening. They almost never read a book more than once, even a book they have thought better than most. What they prefer to the text is its information (a digest of the ‘main points’) whether in a class or in church. ‘They are,’ says Lewis, ‘like those pupils who want to have everything explained to them and do not much attend to the explanation.’ If such a person turns to the task of reading’s tough intellectual disciplines it is likely to be also at second hand; criticism or exegesis done by others which gives one the illusion of having ‘mastered’ the text, or of having been safely placed beyond its reach. ‘Especially poisonous,’ says Lewis, ‘is that kind of teaching which encourages [us] to approach every literary work with suspicion’ — that is, teaching which encourages a predisposition to aloofness so categorical as to render reading itself next to pointless.
“Among other things, what we learn from Lewis about reading, then, is that it is almost inescapably an ethical as well as an analytical activity. It obliges us to choose between acceptance and denial, trust and suspicion, self-effacement and mere selfishness. In ‘good reading,’ Lewis writes, as in mature love, ‘we escape from our self into one another,’ thus ‘transcending our own competitive particularity.’ The educational parallel is exact: ‘In coming to understand anything we are rejecting the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are.’ Part of the ethic is to acknowledge that there is an abundant reality which transcends our own ego and that reality is not, after all, merely self-referential.”
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If you’re interested in further reflections on the existential and ethical aspects of reading, you should know about On Books and Reading, a MARS HILL AUDIO Anthology. Seven thoughtful individuals with various vocations talk with host Ken Myers about why and how engagement with books changes our lives. The guests are poet and former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, literary critic Sven Birkerts, painter Makoto Fujimura, columnist Maggie Jackson, pastor-theologian Eugene Peterson, preacher and media ecologist Gregory Edward Reynolds, and portrait painter Catherine Prescott.
David Lyle Jeffrey’s writing is featured in God’s Patient Stet, an article about the poetry of Richard Wilbur, read aloud by Ken Myers as one of our Audio Reprint series.
John Webster on rapture and receptivity in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar
On Volume 149 of the Journal, Matthew Levering talks about his book The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Introduction to His Theology. In his book’s opening chapter, Levering notes that given the depth and breadth of von Balthasar’s learning and wisdom, attempting to write an introductory book to his work comes perilously close the height of foolishness. (Then again, people write introductory books to the Bible or to the history of the Church.)
As Levering introduces his own introduction, he reflects the three-fold structure of von Balthasar’s trilogy and his own book with this summary: “[T]o a modern world forgetful of God and Christ, von Balthasar wishes to proclaim the beauty of beings, the goodness of history, and the truth of love. He wishes to help us remember that ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8), that God has ‘destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ’ in history (Eph 1:5), and that we must now live ‘according to the measure of Christ’s gift’ (Eph 4:7).”
In an 1983 article titled “Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Paschal Mystery,” John Webster (then Lecturer in Theology at St. John’s College, Durham) offered a helpful glimpse at some of the key themes in von Balthasar’s work. The three-page article includes four subheadings: Beauty; Jesus, the Form of God; Incarnation and Trinity; and The Mystery of Holy Saturday. Since the entire text is both brief and available on-line, I’ll offer here only two very short extracts.
“Von Balthasar’s whole theological enterprise could be not improperly described as an attempt to restate the centrality of the category of beauty for Christian faith and Christian theology. His work is pervaded by a conviction that the self-revelation of God is not only truth to be apprehended by the mind nor only commands to exercise the will, but also a manifestation of the sheer beauty and splendour of the being of God. And so his theology seeks ‘to complement the vision of the true and the good with that of the beautiful’ (The Glory of the Lord, 9). For at the heart of the Christian faith lies the experience of being overwhelmed and mastered by the radiance of God’s glory as he shows himself to the world.
“It would be easy, but ultimately mistaken, to dismiss this unfamiliar theological starting-point as a kind of religious aestheticism. In fact, von Balthasar’s theology of beauty occupies the place which in more familiar accounts of Christian truth is occupied by the doctrine of revelation. That is to say, it is an attempt to identify the self-manifestation of God through which he communicates himself to the world. This self-manifestation is not, however, propositional: God reveals, not a message about himself but rather the splendour of his own being. This splendour is both authoritative and compelling: its claim is absolute, its sheer occurence as the irruption of God’s glory into human history commands by attracting us and taking us beyond ourselves in rapture. And out of such a confrontation with the majesty of God’s being, theology is born. . . .”
“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian's task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”
Hans Urs von Balthasar on the maturing of aesthetic taste
“At first, the science of art may appear to be a material collection of those things that generally pass for beautiful, while the subjective judgment of taste on what is beautiful seems subject to the most extreme variations. The young especially experience this subjective aspect with particular intensity and tend to generalise it. Since they have not yet acquired objective criteria for the evaluation of works of art, and because they have not yet learned to distinguish by seeing and listening, they compensate with the ‘enthusiasm’ proper to their age. They find themselves in or transport themselves to a state of mind, an interior ‘vibration’, which transfigures nature, art, friendship and love in their sight, and which communicates the experience of the beautiful like a drug whose effect, as experience shows, quickly disappears. People who cling to this view of the subjective nature of taste’s judgment have remained immature adolescents. By developing his soul according to the images of the objectively beautiful, the maturing person gradually learns to acquire the art of discrimination, that is, the art of perceiving what is beautiful in itself. In the process of their development, the subjective elements of perception (which, doubtless, include state of mind and fantasy) more and more pass into the service of objective perception. Even in the case of a masterpiece, the mature observer of art can without difficulty give an objective and largely conceptual basis for his judgment.”
— from Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I. Seeing the Form