Marilyn McEntyre on engaging texts receptively
“I've come to believe that good reading is not possible without investment of the whole self. If this is what is given us to do — to be readers, writers, and speakers — then to ‘do it with our whole might,’ in William Robinson Clark’s phrase, means doing it with all our faculties — mind, heart, and gut. To read well is to enter into living relationship with another whole self. Even the most insufferable pedant comes to his or her work as a whole human being with investments, passions, defenses, and desires. As we read, we do well to remember the ‘who’ behind the ‘what.’ If we maintain that focus, dimensions of reading open up that don’t get much press in classrooms. . . .
“There are three very basic questions I like to ask students as they embark on a new novel. What does this work invite you to do? What does it require of you? What does it not let you do? Because the nature of literary engagement is not, finally, detached. We will be addressed and changed, if we read well. We will be challenged and confronted and convicted and offended, bothered, unsettled, and sometimes bored — and even boredom has its uses as preparation for a deeper level of engagement — though more often it’s a sign of sloth.
“All this is to say that the act of reading itself is not only intellectually and emotionally engaging, but morally consequential. How we choose to read, how we submit to or question or resist the terms set by the writer, are choices that shape the habits of our minds and the habits of our hearts. Those habits determine the degree to which we are open to truth in its various guises, and capable of discerning the difference between the ring of truth and the metallic clang of lies.
“Over the past few years, since I began teaching a course called ‘Contemplative Reading,’ I have found that the ancient Benedictine discipline of lectio divina offers an approach to many texts that may allow us to harvest their gifts in a way that frees us from what may have become deadening in classrooms, institutional schedules, and syllabi. Lectio, above all other approaches to reading I know, teaches us to take words personally.
“In lectio, which Benedictines practice in the daily reading of Scripture, you read the text slowly, listening for a word or phrase that speaks to you with particular emphasis. Then you re-read the passage, allowing the key word or phrase to be a point of contact, considering how it addresses the particular circumstances of your life. On the third reading you meditate on the text and on the words it has brought to your attention as gifts peculiar to the moment, considering what response it invites. Finally, on the fourth reading you rest in words as you hear them once more. As a devotional practice, lectio is reserved for sacred texts and sacred time. I recommended it on those terms to anyone seeking nourishment from sacred reading.
“On the other hand, what lectio can teach us about how to read responsibly, receptively, and fruitfully need not be reserved only for the reading of sacred texts. Poems, stories, personal memoirs, even news analysis and feature articles can be read with the prayer that in them we may be personally addressed and from them receive what Kenneth Burke calls ‘equipment for living.’ I have begun to tell my students — many of them victims of twelve years of schooling in which many have learned to resent ten-pound anthologies with unimaginative study guides and the overburdened teachers who ask plodding content questions — to ‘take it personally.’ Not simply to find what they can (to use their favorite verb) ‘relate to,’ but rather to read with an eye and ear out for words, images, scenes, sentences, and rhythms that evoke a felt response. To put a check in the margin when they are bothered or amused or offended or delighted or simply when something makes them think ‘Hmm.’ And then to go back to those places and ask what happened there. What associations were triggered? What reactions might they take time to articulate? What part of their comfort zone was invaded? To listen for direct address is to listen for an invitation and to make ready to receive precisely the gift one needs in precisely this moment of reading. On this particular reading of Moby-Dick it may lurk in the chapter on the whiteness of the whale. Next time, though, it may be in the little colloquy on Ahab’s pipe that one of my students decided was ‘the key chapter in Moby-Dick.’”
— from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, 2009). A second edition of this book will be released in May 2021. An interview with McEntyre about the original edition is included in The Worth of Words, one of many Anthologies available in our catalog.
William Cowper seeks retirement from worldliness, in a hymn and a poem
In our time, the best-known hymn by slaver-turned-abolitionist-priest John Newton (1725–1807) is “Amazing Grace.” But during the nineteenth century, his hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” was much more popular. The hymn’s first stanza doesn’t address God, but “Zion, City of our God.”
The final stanza in the original hymn moved from describing the attributes of the Heavenly Jerusalem to discussing, in the form of a prayer, the characteristics that should be evident in the lives of citizens of the Holy City.
Savior, if of Zion’s city
I, thro’ grace, a member am,
let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name;
fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion's children know.
Newton’s fellow hymn-writer William Cowper (1731–1800, and pronounced “Cooper”) seems to have been extremely alert to the distractions and temptations of the various pleasures of worldlings. One of the many hymns that he wrote — a hymn published in the Newton-edited collection Olney Hymns — expresses the desire to escape from the noise and distraction of worldliness. The hymn — usually named by its first line — was when originally published called simply “Retirement.”
1. Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,
From strife and tumult far;
From scenes where Satan wages still
His most successful war.
2. The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree;
And seem by Thy sweet bounty made
For those who follow Thee.
3. There, if Thy Spirit touch the soul,
And grace her mean abode,
O with what peace, and joy, and love,
She communes with her God!
4. There, like the nightingale, she pours
Her solitary lays;
Nor asks a witness of her song,
Nor thirsts for human praise.
5. Author and Guardian of my life,
Sweet Source of light divine,
And, all harmonious names in one,
My Saviour, — Thou art mine!
6. What thanks I owe Thee, and what love,
A boundless, endless store,
Shall echo through the realms above
When time shall be no more!
In his book The Hymnal: A Reading History (discussed on Volume 149 of the Journal and excerpted here), Christopher N. Phillips describes how the writing of hymns was the genesis of Cowper’s emergence as a significant English poet. So it is not surprising that one of Cowper’s longer poems (800 lines) develops in a more expansive mode some of the themes present in this hymn. That poem is also called “Retirement.” Below are some excerpts.
. . . conscience pleads her cause within the breast,
Though long rebell’d against, not yet suppress’d,
And calls a creature form’d for God alone,
For Heaven’s high purposes, and not his own,
Calls him away from selfish ends and aims,
From what debilitates and what inflames,
From cities humming with a restless crowd,
Sordid as active, ignorant as loud,
Whose highest praise is that they live in vain,
The dupes of pleasure, or the slaves of gain,
Where works of man are cluster’d close around,
And works of God are hardly to be found,
To regions where, in spite of sin and woe,
Traces of Eden are still seen below,
Where mountain, river, forest, field, and grove,
Remind him of his Maker’s power and love. . . .
Some minds by nature are averse to noise,
And hate the tumult half the world enjoys,
The lure of avarice, or the pompous prize
That courts display before ambitious eyes;
The fruits that hang on pleasure’s flowery stem,
Whate’er enchants them, are no snares to them.
To them the deep recess of dusky groves,
Or forest, where the deer securely roves,
The fall of waters, and the song of birds,
And hills that echo to the distant herds,
Are luxuries excelling all the glare
The world can boast, and her chief favourites share.
With eager step, and carelessly array’d,
For such a cause the poet seeks the shade, . . .
Luxury gives the mind a childish cast,
And, while she polishes, perverts the taste;
Habits of close attention, thinking heads,
Become more rare as dissipation spreads,
Till authors hear at length one general cry,
Tickle and entertain us, or we die.
The loud demand, from year to year the same,
Beggars invention, and makes fancy lame;
Till farce itself, most mournfully jejune,
Calls for the kind assistance of a tune;
And novels (witness every month’s review)
Belie their name, and offer nothing new.
The mind, relaxing into needful sport,
Should turn to writers of an abler sort,
Whose wit well managed, and whose classic style,
Give truth a lustre, and make wisdom smile. . . .
Religion does not censure or exclude
Unnumber’d pleasures harmlessly pursued;
To study culture, and with artful toil
To meliorate and tame the stubborn soil;
To give dissimilar yet fruitful lands
The grain, or herb, or plant that each demands;
To cherish virtue in an humble state,
And share the joys your bounty may create;
To mark the matchless workings of the power
That shuts within its seed the future flower,
Bids these in elegance of form excel,
In colour these, and those delight the smell,
Sends Nature forth the daughter of the skies,
To dance on earth, and charm all human eyes;
To teach the canvas innocent deceit,
Or lay the landscape on the snowy sheet—
These, these are arts pursued without a crime,
That leave no stain upon the wing of time.
Me poetry (or, rather, notes that aim
Feebly and vainly at poetic fame)
Employs, shut out from more important views,
Fast by the banks of the slow-winding Ouse;
Content if, thus sequester’d, I may raise
A monitor’s, though not a poet’s, praise,
And, while I teach an art too little known,
To close life wisely, may not waste my own.
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.”
• • •
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.