Thursday, March 11, 2010

eschatology and poetry

I want to do some research into the eschatological nature of poetry. In other words, the way that poetry is an expression of "the last things", of a longing for the eternal.

I'm just not sure where to start. I first started thinking about this after hearing Trevor Hart's New College Lectures on God and the artist. But I haven't really found much else on the subject.

Any ideas?

I'm thinking CS Lewis might have something to say on the matter, and Tolkein and Sayers (all referenced in Trevor's lecture), but what specifically should I look for, and what about more recent contributions on the subject?

Alain de botton said this on twitter not long ago: "For those frustrated that art cannot do more: art is a suggestion, not an order, whispers rather than commands. I am the frustrated one."

That pretty much sums it up. I just want to think about it a bit more. So if you have any leads, please let me know.


Jed said...

Hi there. A friend of yours directed me here, to this particular post...

I'm currently preparing a PhD thesis proposal, and I stray a little bit into this territory. Lewis actually borrowed a term from the German Romantics, Sehnsucht, which is essentially an insatiable longing, or longing for something that is not satisfiable here on earth; longing that is in itself a sweetness. He best expands on this idea in his introduction to "The Pilgrim's Regress". The book itself doesn't really touch on it, other than the fact that for Lewis he is constantly responding to art, or literature, or nature, that stirs in him these feelings of Sehnsucht, "news from a far distant country". But the introduction would probably be useful for you.

His best spiritual unpacking of it is probably found in his essay "The Weight of Glory", which happens to be just incredibly beautiful and brilliant regardless. You can trace it through all of his work though. I could name every instance of it that I have found, but we might be here for a while...

Otherwise I'm particularly focusing on the Lewis' rendering of Sehnsucht as it appears in American Literature between 1900-1945. Carson McCullers is a good author for it, and she herself recognises that this "longing for places we have never been" is something almost endemic to Americans: they are homesick most for places they have never been. She picks Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe (of "Look Homeward, Angel" fame) and Hart Crane as other American authors who have expressed this kind of longing.

Regarding poetry in particular, I can't say much. Rainer Maria Rilke could be the poet of longing, though, and his work is very much worth exploring.

I could say more, but perhaps this is useful?

sophg said...

Hey Jed, thanks for dropping by.

Your PhD sounds really interesting. Ali (i'm assuming she's the friend) has mentioned Sehnsucht on her blog - a sentiment I relate to, and one I'm also interested in.

Thanks for the suggested readings - I really ought to read The Weight of Glory. And I'll check out the other authors you suggest.

I wonder if there is more out there specifically to do with poetry? I tend to think of it as a form basically dominated by Sehnsucht. I know Kevin Hart, an Australian christian poet is probably a good local contact. But beyond that, I'm not sure.

I've been intending to read more Rilke, so will do that too.

Thanks Jed - If you have any more thoughts, please do go on - I don't mind at all... I'm deeply interested in this stuff.

Ali said...

Hey, I am the aforementioned Ali, and Jed, I am so jealous!!! If you take a look at this post from me, which Soph actually linked to earlier in her blog, you'll see the Lewis, Rilke, Sehnsucht connection - but, no, I don't know any Jed! (unless that is an alias). However, I am doing my own little "CS Lewis project" just for fun and am all about the sehnsucht, so I'd actually be weirdly interested in your references ... Love this stuff!

Ali said...

Oh, and I had to just sign in, so this is just to tick the box for follow-ups.

Jed said...

Hello again!

I don't have a blog or anything like that, so I'll just keep posting as an invisible figure. No, I don't believe we have met Ali! The friend that sent me here was Jo Fellows. She sent me a message on Facebook and told me I should trundle over here.

Ali, have you come across Corbin Scott Carnell's "Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C.S. Lewis"? It's probably the most comprehensive study of Sehnsucht, as Lewis uses the term, that you'll find. I ordered it online through Book Depository (one of the greatest websites EVER) and it might well be worth you checking out. I've not read it in its entirety, so I won't give you a review just yet.

As for Lewis, the references are endless. Is there anything more tangibly Sehnsucht than the glimpse of Narnia at the end of 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'? The off-handed comment at the end of the Faith chapter in 'Mere Christianity' about "where the road passes over the rim". The house and the master in 'Till We Have Faces'. The best end, in my opinion, of almost any novel, in 'The Last Battle. I would add also MacDonald's 'Phantastes' which for Lewis was like crossing "a great frontier" and also MacDonald's 'At the Back of the North Wind', which, if not about Sehnsucht, certainly creates it in abundance in the reader. There are more and more and more, undoubtedly, but there is nothing quite like a serendipitous uncovering to heighten the Sehnsucht, and I wouldn't want to spoil all your fun.

Sophie, I am no poet! If you are looking in poetry, I could only suggest to begin with the Romantics, like Wordsworth, and also the Germans. Goethe, Schiller, Eichendorff and Novalis have all written 'Sehnsucht Poetry' (in that they have openly addressed the term and its meaning). You might find it interesting that Herman Hesse wrote, "the task of the artist is...above all to awaken Sehnsucht."

The poets that I am looking at are, of course, Americans. In that way, Hart Crane is really where my focus lies. I'm constrained by my period, but I'd stretch it to include Dickinson if I could.

"Longing is like the Seed
That wrestles in the Ground,
Believing if it intercede
It shall at length be found..."

In terms of more 'spiritual longing', Dickinson would seem to be an obvious candidate, along with Rilke. Like I said, I'm really on the cusp of what you are interested in, so I probably don't have an awful lot to say. I would be interested to see how it goes. And you as well Ali!

Ali said...

Well, thank you Jed - with apologies to Soph if I have hijacked the trail here a little. I've never heard of Jo Fellows, so I, obviously, have nothing to do with any of it.

That sounds like a fabulous book - and yes, I am a big fan of book depository - I have to give myself rations or that site would be the ruin of me.

I need to read the Narnia series again, but do agree on the others. And Phantastes! - an all time favourite. I came at CS Lewis via MacDonald, rather than the other way round. What you say of The Back of the North Wind might also apply to The Golden Key - that book transports me somewhere. But yes, as we know the very nature of Sehnsucht is that it comes to people differently and unexpectedly and can't be located, for long, in any one thing - talking of the thing itself, rather than a discussion of it.
The idea is there in some of Lewis's own poetry, and I think Christina Rossetti strikes at it now and then. I shall have to be more consciously aware from here on. I don't know Hart Crane, so there is a new venture ...

Anyway, thanks Jed. This is all truly fascinating.

sophg said...

ahh the lovely Jo. I'm assuming a uni connection there?

I'm yet to buy anything from the book depository, I'm fearful if I start, I won't stop. And I like to support local booksellers... but so.tempting.

Thanks for the poetry suggestions - you sound far from uninformed about poetry and Sehnsucht.. I'm really only just beginning to scratch the surface myself and so your insights are really valuable.

I recently acquired the complete poems of Dickinson. That is a lovely couplet you quoted. Strangely enough, I've been thinking a lot about the seed in the ground for other reasons.

The Hesse quote, you are right, does interest me. Awakening Sehnsucht to me means awakening a discontent, but one which, as you have suggested, has its own sweetness. What cruelty!

sophg said...

I should add, Jed, your PhD kind of intersects with a subject I'm studying at the moment.

I've just enrolled in a subject called American Author/American Autuer that looks at notions of Americanness (can't think of a better word) in American film and literature.

We're looking at Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Wharton and Faulkner.
So far, we've talked a lot about the idea of America constantly rewriting itself, that it's always in the process of nation-building - that there is an inherent idealism in the way Americans approach their national identity.

Sehnsucht, I think is an interesting tangent off this - that longing for other, for a home elsewhere, is perhaps what prompts the effort to create that utopia on earth?

Jed said...

Sophie, that class sounds great! Fitzgerald, in particular, is a writer I am looking at with great interest. If you haven't read Carson McCullers, 'The Heart is a Lonely Hunter' then you really must. I hope the person running that course would agree with me.

This is her, from an essay titled 'Look Homeward, Americans'...

"It is a curious emotion, this certain homesickness I have in mind. With Americans, it is a national trait, as native to us as the roller-coaster or the jukebox. It is not simply longing for the home town or the country of our birth. The emotion is Janus-faced: we are torn between a nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.
All men are lonely. But sometimes it seems to me that we Americans are the loneliest of all."

They are complex people, those Americans. A mongrel conglomerate of beliefs, superstitions, cultures, sub-cultures, religions, creeds... They are African and European, Hispanic and Chinese, Native American, very Irish Catholic, very Jewish... It goes on. How do you forge an identity in that mess? What is an American? What is the American Dream?

You are right... They are constantly trying to build the edifice of a nation. The great rhetoricians make castles in the air, and the American gift is to believe enough in them to create a faint whiff of nostalgia, as if at some point those castles were real. Their writers are lonely, but they can never match the Europeans for despair. There is hope, somewhere in the past, somewhere in the distant future, and the homesickness is at once for places that have never existed, and for places that are yet to come.

Or perhaps it is none of these things. I'm barely even at the beginning. But there is enough there to get a sense that Sehnsucht, or something like it, might be a new way into an understanding of American-ness, and American Literature. I just have to read and read and read and read.

I know Jo through a random group of mutual friends. And then also through Macquarie. She is indeed lovely.

sophg said...

Carson McCullers - added to the list. Thanks!

On the making of castles, couldn't help but think of Yes We Can... that was quite a big castle to build, wasn't it?!

I look forward to hearing how you research goes - you'll have to stay in touch. And if you come across anything wildly interesting, do let me know!