The Rime Of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist
Since the ancients (as we are told by Pappus), made great account of the science of mechanics in the investigation of natural things; and the moderns, laying aside substantial forms and occult qualities, have endeavoured to subject the phænomena of nature to the laws of mathematics, I have in this treatise cultivated mathematics so far as it regards philosophy. The ancients considered mechanics in a twofold respect; as rational, which proceeds accurately by demonstration: and practical. To practical mechanics all the manual arts belong, from which mechanics took its name. But as artificers do not work with perfect accuracy, it comes to pass that mechanics is so distinguished from geometry, that what is perfectly accurate is called geometrical, what is less so, is called mechanical. But the errors are not in the art, but in the artificers. He that works with less accuracy is an imperfect mechanic; and if any could work with perfect accuracy, he would be the most perfect mechanic of all; for the description of right lines and circles, upon which geometry is founded, belongs to mechanics. Geometry does not teach us to draw these lines, but requires them to be drawn; for it requires that the learner should first be taught to describe these accurately, before he enters upon geometry; then it shows how by these operations problems may be solved. To describe right lines and circles are problems, but not geometrical problems. The solution of these problems is required from mechanics; and by geometry the use of them, when so solved, is shown; and it is the glory of geometry that from those few principles, brought from without, it is able to produce so many things.
Therefore geometry is founded in mechanical practice, and is nothing but that part of universal mechanics which accurately proposes and demonstrates the art of measuring. But since the manual arts are chiefly conversant in the moving of bodies, it comes to pass that geometry is commonly referred to their magnitudes, and mechanics to their motion. In this sense rational mechanics will be the science of motions resulting from any forces whatsoever, and of the forces required to produce any motions, accurately proposed and demonstrated. This part of mechanics was cultivated by the ancients in the five powers which relate to manual arts, who considered gravity (it not being a manual power), no otherwise than as it moved weights by those powers. Our design not respecting arts, but philosophy, and our subject not manual but natural powers, we consider chiefly those things which relate to gravity, levity, elastic force, the resistance of fluids, and the like forces, whether attractive or impulsive; and therefore we offer this work as the mathematical principles of philosophy; for all the difficulty of philosophy seems to consist in this—from the phænomena of motions to investigate the forces of nature, and then from these forces to demonstrate the other phænomena; and to this end the general propositions in the first and second book are directed.
In the third book we give an example of this in the explication of the System of the World; for by the propositions mathematically demonstrated in the former books, we in the third derive from the celestial phenomena the forces of gravity with which bodies tend to the sun and the several planets. Then from these forces, by other propositions which are also mathematical, we deduce the motions of the planets, the comets, the moon, and the sea. I wish we could derive the rest of the phænomena of nature by the same kind of reasoning from mechanical principles; for I am induced by many reasons to suspect that they may all depend upon certain forces by which the particles of bodies, by some causes hitherto unknown, are either mutually impelled towards each other, and cohere in regular figures, or are repelled and recede from each other; which forces being unknown, philosophers have hitherto attempted the search of nature in vain; but I hope the principles here laid down will afford some light either to this or some truer method of philosophy.
In the publication of this work the most acute and universally learned Mr. Edmund Halley not only assisted me with his pains in correcting the press and taking care of the schemes, but it was to his solicitations that its becoming public is owing; for when he had obtained of me my demonstrations of the figure of the celestial orbits, he continually pressed me to communicate the same to the Royal Society, who afterwards, by their kind encouragement and entreaties, engaged me to think of publishing them. But after I had begun to consider the inequalities of the lunar motions, and had entered upon some other things relating to the laws and measures of gravity, and other forces: and the figures that would be described by bodies attracted according to given laws; and the motion of several bodies moving among themselves; the motion of bodies in resisting mediums; the forces, densities, and motions, of mediums; the orbits of the comets, and such like; deferred that publication till I had made a search into those matters, and could put forth the whole together.
What relates to the lunar motions (being imperfect), I have put all together in the corollaries of Prop. 66, to avoid being obliged to propose and distinctly demonstrate the several things there contained in a method more prolix than the subject deserved, and interrupt the series of the several propositions. Some things, found out after the rest, I chose to insert in places less suitable, rather than change the number of the propositions and the citations. I heartily beg that what I have here done may be read with candour; and that the defects in a subject so difficult be not so much reprehended as kindly supplied, and investigated by new endeavours of my readers.
Cambridge, Trinity College, May 8, 1686
The Age of Enlightenment reached its apex in 1686 when Isaac Newton penned his Principia Mathematica. The obvious and immediate effect was on science, but the waters of theology were rippled with implication. Suddenly it seemed clear that Galileo was right when he said “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.” How could the hard science of physics ever be reconciled with metaphysics?
As author Malcolm Guite wrote in his book Mariner:
One aspect of the Enlightenment which had huge implications for modernism was the divorce between reason and imagination and the consequent reduction of knowledge itself to a so-called “objective” realm of quantiﬁable fact from which all value or meaning had been drained, which in turn led to a reductive, mechanistic, and purely material account of the cosmos.
John Mark Reynolds said this in his book The Great Books Reader:
Science, especially physics, made slow progress up to Newton, but he seemed to equal all of those centuries of gains by himself. For some time, there appeared little left to do scientifically but examine the implications of his ideas and work out the details. Newton confirmed that we live in a cosmos, an ordered structure. If anything, the structure seemed too airtight for free will or chance.
Poets like William Blake feared Newton had discovered a clockwork universe with no place for God or romance, though Newton himself remained a theist. Reformed Christians in particular had viewed science and the Scientific Revolution as an ally, but beginning with Newtonian physics the doubts began to grow.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
Isaac Newton is widely regarded as the greatest scientist of all time. His claim to fame rests chiefly on this work. In it—or, the Principia Mathematica, as it is also called—Newton invents the infinitesimal calculus and with it delineates the fundamental laws governing the structure and dynamics of physical reality. From the motion of billiard balls to the motion of planets and everything in between, Newton’s Principia was thought to give the final word.
Sometimes genius is underappreciated during the life of the genius. Not so with Newton. His genius was evident and reverenced from the start. Isaac Barrow, Newton’s predecessor in the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, was so impressed with Newton that he resigned and had Newton assume the chair (a professorship subsequently held by such luminaries as Charles Babbage, Paul Dirac, and, presently, Stephen Hawking).
Newton’s contemporary Edmund Halley, the famed astronomer remembered for the comet named for him, even wrote an ode to Newton. It closes with the effusive praise,
Come celebrate with me in song the name
Of Newton, to the Muses dear; for he
Unlocked the hidden treasuries of Truth:
So richly through his mind had Phoebus cast
The radiance of his own divinity.
Nearer the gods no mortal may approach.
In the same spirit, Alexander Pope, a younger contemporary, wrote this epitaph:
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.
Even the twentieth-century economist John Maynard Keynes recognized how profoundly Newton’s genius had impacted seventeenth-century intellectual life, referring to him as “the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.”
Although Principia Mathematica is highly technical, it contains several extended passages of interest to the general reader. Thus, for instance, we find bold statements about God’s role as a designing intelligence behind the world. Contemporary scientists who feel passionately about the religious significance of their scientific work may still offer up such statements, but usually they will keep them off to one side. Newton, by contrast, saw no contradiction in doing his best science and then immediately, in the same written work, giving it a theological interpretation.
Although we think of Newton as the preeminent scientist of his (and, indeed, any) age, it is remarkable that science was only one of the many professional hats he wore. His higher passion seems to have been theology, and he spent much time studying and writing about the Bible.
He was also an avid alchemist. Moreover, in the 1690s, he abruptly left his ivory-tower professorship at Cambridge to assume duties heading the government mint in London. (Imagine string-theorist Ed Witten leaving Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study to move to D.C. and head the U.S. Treasury.)
Yet for all the other hats Newton wore, he accomplished nothing like the distinction he achieved in science. There he was a soaring figure. In theology, by contrast, he was a well-read but self-schooled amateur. Also, his theological views were heterodox: Though accepting the Bible as largely factual (including the miracles ascribed to Jesus), Newton sided with Arius against Athanasius, rejecting the divinity of Christ.
In ancient Athens, Socrates would go about asking recognized experts in a given area broader philosophical questions: What is justice? What is truth? (etc.) He found that expertise in one area tends not to transfer to others, especially when these require wisdom. Newton seems to fit this mold. In the science of physics, he was preeminent. And yet when he delved into other areas, he was undistinguished and, at times, even a duffer.
What is Newton’s legacy? He properly belongs to science, where he still ranks in the number one spot, though he has some close seconds and thirds (such as Albert Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell). In Newton’s day, it was thought that he had once and for all nailed down the deep structure of the physical universe. With the revolutions in electromagnetism, general relativity, and quantum mechanics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, it’s now obvious his physics was only part of the picture.
Newtonian physics captures the motion of medium-sized objects at medium speeds. That’s why it’s still the first thing beginning physics students learn. But it’s clear that the scope of Newton’s physics is strictly limited. The odes by Halley and Pope celebrating him and his achievements could no longer be written with a straight face.
In his day, he was, as John Locke said, “the incomparable Mr. Newton.” Nowadays, he is a primus inter pares: He remains the greatest of scientists, but one who rubs shoulders with other great scientists and not as one who towers above the rest.
William Dembski, PhD, is a professor of Philosophy and the director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is an advocate for Intelligent Design and the author of numerous books on the topic including Intelligent Design Uncensored and The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).
“Poetry strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bear the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”
1 Then Job answered the LORD:
2 “I know that thou canst do all things,
and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
5 I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees thee;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
The great theologian Mike Tyson said “Everybody has a plan until they get hit.” Well, he might have been talking about boxing but that’s pretty good theology too. There is a big difference between knowing about God and knowing God. In the Bible, every time God appears to man the result is the same; fear and trembling. It’s easy to think all of this is limited to old stories about other people, but God still does this, and it always stuns to silence when the infinite intersects with the finite.
In his book Out of the Depths, Ken Kovacs writes:
At one point (or many), we all hit a similar wall when we realize that our perspectives are too narrow and limited and we’re called (or sometimes forced) to yield to a wider frame of knowing. In his essay A Defense of Poetry, written in 1821, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) said that poetry “purges the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being”. Something of the same is required in order for us to “see” God. The “film of familiarity” is wiped away and we’re allowed to see something anew. Job confronts the inadequacy of his former ways of framing the world. His new experience yields a wider, more comprehensive view of reality, of justice, even of God. It’s a gracious reframing of his world, his self, the God he thought he knew—something far more profound and expansive. Job’s vision changes everything.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.
Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/
The word ‘theophany’ does not actually occur in the Bible. It comes from two roots which combine to give the literal meaning, ‘appearance of God’. In Scripture a theophany is a localized, formal and personal manifestation of God.
Two primary principles provide the context for theophanies: (1) Being omnipresent, God cannot be and is not limited to a particular place and time (1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:7–10; Is. 55:8–9). Therefore, theophanies do not abrogate his omnipresence.
(2) The Bible teaches that all of creation reveals God (e.g. Ps. 19:1–6; Rom. 1:20). God has designed and formed the creation in such a way that it mirrors his attributes, character and person. However, the fallenness of human beings prevents them from interpreting this general revelation properly (Rom. 1:21ff.). Therefore God has provided special revelation (Scripture) for the particular purpose of redeeming humanity. Theophanies are phenomena within special revelation.
So seeing God’s power in the forces of nature or seeing his beauty in the beauty of creation is not a theophany as such. Theophanies are always accompanied by verbal revelation which clearly identifies God. In theophanies God reveals himself to be known, i.e. he is personal.
That theophanies are redemptive in character can be seen from the first instance, where God appeared to Adam and Eve in the garden after the Fall (Gen. 3:8), and through the final form of Christ, God incarnate (Rev. 1:13ff.). Whenever God revealed himself in this manner it indicated some significant event in the advancement of his programme of redemption, such as a renewed pledge of faithfulness (Gen. 15), the imminent judgment of his enemies (Exod. 14) or the commissioning of his prophet with a message for his people (Is. 6).
The forms of theophanies
Theophanies occur in a variety of forms, including storms, fire and clouds and are usually accompanied by auditory phenomena such as a voice or thunder. There are often tactile accompaniments such as heat, coolness and earth tremors. There are instances in which the form is not described, and all we are told is that God appeared (e.g. Gen. 12:1; 17:1; 35:9; 1 Sam. 3:21; 1 Kings 9:2; 2 Chron. 7:12). In these cases, the content of the encounters is the guide to their significance. It is the words of God which, for the reader of Scripture, constitute the importance of the meeting, since the form is not reported to us. However, where the form is indicated, it is an additional pointer to the significance of the encounter (see ‘The Angel of the LORD’ and ‘The glory cloud’ below).
Dreams and visions may be considered as both distinct from yet similar to theophanies. Dreams involve an imprint upon the subject which is psychical rather than sensory (e.g. Gen. 28:10ff.). Nevertheless, the same principles apply. The form is adapted to the particular purpose of the encounter. Visions, it may be argued, are sensory, but they are in fact distinct from material theophanies. Both dreams and visions are more ‘flexible’ than theophanies because they are not bound to the space and time limits of material.
The glory cloud
The two dominant forms of theophanies in Scripture are the glory cloud and the Angel of the LORD. The most vivid appearance of the glory cloud was that which began at Mt Sinai (Exod. 19:16), where Moses received the Law of God, and continued through the wilderness period. It must have been massive both in size and effect, for the Israelites ‘trembled and stood at a distance’ (Exod. 20:18). This response was consistent with God’s demands in the situation, for the mountain was off-limits to the people (19:12, 21, 24). Only Moses and the leaders of Israel could ascend the mountain (24:9ff.). The significance of this can be found in the association which this thunderous, fiery presence would have evoked.
One association would have pertained to common perceptions of deity in Israel’s cultural context. The Canaanite deities Baal and El were associated with the thunderstorm and the mountains. As the chief deities in the Canaanite pantheon, they were thought to dwell in the mountains. Critics argue that this association with the God of Israel was an incorporation of pantheistic notions into Israelite religion, but in fact quite the opposite is the case. God, in effect, was coopting this association to declare himself the God above all gods. It was he, and not Baal, who was the true and living God. Rather than Baal, it was Yahweh (the LORD) who ‘makes the clouds his chariot’ and ‘walks upon the wings of the wind’ (Ps. 104:3). It was Yahweh to whom was due exclusive and complete devotion (Exod. 20:3).
A second association with the storm theophany, which constitutes a pervasive OT theme, is between the heavenly courts and the glory cloud. God’s throne was regarded as beyond the skies, concealed by the clouds and filled with light. Whenever Scripture provides a glimpse of God’s heavenly throne, this conception is affirmed (e.g. Is. 6). The significance is that God had established his throne presence in Israel’s midst. The connection was clear when the glory cloud took up abode in the Tabernacle and, subsequently, in the Temple. This presence brought the blessings of divine protection and justice and made ethical demands. Israel’s special responsibility to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6) was directly related to the immediate divine presence in their midst, beginning at Sinai and continuing in their life in the land of Canaan.
This understanding of the glory cloud would have been extended by the Israelites to prior theophanies. In particular we may think of the smoking oven and flaming torch (Gen. 15:17) which passed between the animal pieces as a sign of divine commitment to Abraham. Early Israel, as the original audience of Genesis, would have understood that the God who made the covenant with Abraham was the same God who manifested himself on the mountain and who would accompany them through the wilderness. The pledge, ‘To your descendants I have given this land’ (Gen. 15:18) would have been theirs too as they moved towards Canaan. The glory cloud theophany is identified functionally with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Neh. 9:19–20; Is. 63:11–14; Hag. 2:5). This identification is confirmed in the consummate descent of God’s glory/Spirit upon believers, the new abode of God (1 Pet. 2:5), at Pentecost, constituting the true Israel (Acts 2:1–4).
The Angel of the LORD
The other dominant form of theophany in Scripture is the Angel of the LORD, the appearance of a human form which is frequently identified as God. Not all appearances of this special angel are so identified (e.g. 2 Sam. 24:16). But in the vast majority of cases the identification is clear, variously made by explicit claims (e.g. Exod. 3:15), possession of divine attributes (Gen. 16:10), receiving worship (Josh. 5:14), accepting sacrifices (Judg. 13:19–23), being called God (Judg. 13:22) and forgiving/remembering sins (Exod. 23:21). Instances of the Angel of the LORD include Abraham’s encounter with the three angels near Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18), Lot’s visit in Sodom (Gen. 19), Hagar in the wilderness (Gen. 21:9–21), Abraham at Mt Moriah (Gen. 22:1–19), Jacob at Peniel (Gen. 32:24–32), Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:1–6, 13–16), Israel in the wilderness (Exod. 23:20), Balaam on the road (Num. 22), Israel at Bochim (Judg. 2), Gideon at Ophrah (Judg. 6:11–24), Samson’s parents (Judg. 13), Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:1–8), Elijah after Ahab’s death (2 Kings 1:3, 15), the Assyrians near Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35), Zechariah in his night visions and Daniel in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:25).
The fundamental significance of this figure is in the posture of a warrior, manifested for the protection of God’s people and for leading God’s army in battle. In the patriarchal period he was a defender on the clan level (Gen. 15:1), but from the period of the Exodus onwards he was the leader of an army (Josh. 5:14).
God’s condescension to a temporary human form communicated to Israel that he was their defender and protector. They were to see their need to trust in him rather than in the strength of their own numbers. They also were to anticipate the theophany par excellence which was to come in Jesus Christ. The Angel of the LORD as God taking human form quite naturally anticipated the permanent abode in flesh that God would assume at the incarnation. Both Jesus and the Angel are called ‘Lord’ (Gen. 16:7; John 20:28) and ‘God’ (Gen. 48:15–16; Heb. 1:8); they both claimed to be ‘I AM’ (Exod. 3:2–14; John 8:58), lead and guide God’s people (Exod. 14:19; Matt. 28:20) and are commanders of the Lord’s army (Josh. 5:13–15; Rev. 19:11–14). The parallels are substantial enough that the Angel of the LORD is frequently termed a ‘Christophany’—a pre-incarnate, temporary manifestation of the second Person of the Trinity.
Beyond his identification with the Angel of the LORD, Jesus Christ is the consummate theophany in that he is the permanent and complete joining of the divine and human natures in one Person. ‘The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Surpassing all the theophanies of the OT, Christ came as the throne room of God (being the final Temple, John 2:19–21), a full manifestation of God (Col. 2:9) bringing God’s consummate Word to humanity (Heb. 1:1–3). As such he saves undeserving sinners, not through their own efforts but through his inestimable grace (Titus 3:4); he makes ethical demands of us to live in accordance with his character (Titus 2:11) and he leads the armies of heaven in the defence of his people and in the defeat of their enemies (Rev. 2:16).
Paul Douglas Gardner, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Characters: The Complete Who’s Who in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001), 641–644.
Over my suppliant hands entwined, I leaned
just staring at the fire, imagining
bodies of human beings and seen burn.
And both my trusted guides now turned to me.
And the Virgil spoke, to say: ‘My dearest son,
here may be agony but never death.
Remember this! Remember! And if I
led you to safety on Geryon’s back,
what will I do when now so close to God?
Believe this. And be sure. Where you to stay
a thousand years or more wombed in this fire,
you’d not been made the balder by one hair.
And if, perhaps, you think I’m tricking you,
approach the fire and reassure yourself,
trying with your own hands your garments hem.
Have done, I say, have done with fearfulness.
Turn this way. Come and enter safely in!’
But I, against all conscience, stood stock still.
And when he saw me stiff and obstinate,
he said, I little troubled: ‘Look my son,
between Beatrice and you there is just this wall….’
Ahead of me, he went to meet the fire,
and begged that Statius, who had walked the road
so long between us, now take up the rear.
And, once within, I could have flung myself ‒
The heat that fire produced was measureless ‒
or coolness, in a vat of boiling glass.
To strengthen me, my sweetest father spoke,
as on he went, of Beatrice always,
saying, it seems I see her eyes already.’
and, guiding us, a voice sang from beyond.
So we, attending only to that voice,
came out and saw where now we could ascend.
‘Venite, benedicti Patris mei!’
sounded with in what little light there was.
This overcame me and I could not look.
(The Devine Comedy, II Purgatorio, lines 16−32 and 46−60)
The essence of sin as described by St Paul in his epistle to the Romans is man’s suppression of Truth, which he goes on to say results in the exchange of Truth for a lie. Here we see the imago Dei, or the image of God with which we are created, dwelling as St Paul says ‘in darkness.’ The capital sins through which Dante progresses in Purgatory are inversions of virtue, and they crush our souls.
In The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite describes the progression:
They started at the bottom of the mountain, crushed, as we all are, by the heavy weight of Pride. For the very thing we think is exalting us up, is really weighing us down, all that effort to keep up the image! Best to let it go and rest in humility, accepting that grace we all need. They have been through Envy, and learned to shut their eyes to the useless things we covet, they have stumbled through the black and blinding smoke of Anger, and so with the other sins, each thankfully left behind. But there is always something that stays with us, some besetting sin that, as Paul says, ‘clings so close’. And so at last they come to the smallest circle, the least of the seven, but it still needs addressing, and that, as you will already have guessed, is Lust!
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
Photo courtesy Lancia E. Smith
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.
And I, in the midst of all this circling horror,
began, “Teacher, what are these sounds I hear?
What souls are these so overwhelmed by grief?”
And he to me: “This wretched state of being
is the fate of those sad souls who lived a life
but lived it with no blame and with no praise.
They are mixed with that repulsive choir of angels
neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God,
who undecided stood but for themselves.
Heaven, to keep its beauty, cast them out,
but even Hell itself would not receive the
for fear the damned might glory over them.”
And I. “Master, what torments do they suffer
that force them to lament so bitterly?”
He answered: “I will tell you in few words:
these wretches have no hope of truly dying,
and this blind life they lead is so abject
it makes them envy every other fate.
The world will not record their having been there;
Heaven’s mercy and its justice turn from them.
Let’s not discuss them; look and pass them by…”
On this day, January 27th in 1302, Dante Alighieri was undoubtedly dejected. Yesterday he was chief magistrate and a leading citizen of Florence, but today he was fined heavily and permanently excluded from public office on trumped-up charges. Worse, in a few weeks he will be exiled entirely from the city.
Homeless and without wealth, it would seem that his life was ruined. That could have been true, but it was only then that he decided to write what has become one of literature’s greatest achievements.
The Divine Comedy, an epic 14,000 line poem is a bit of the Wizard of Oz as it tells of Dante’s tour through hell, purgatory and heaven. It is ultimately a story of love. Dante learns from the Inferno (hell) what happens to love when it has gone all wrong; Purgatorio (purgatory), what happens to imperfect people trying to repair their souls; and in Paradiso (heaven), the beauty of love perfected. The reader’s joy is traveling alongside Dante on his journey before returning to earth.
Dante discovers at the end of a long journey that he had confused the beauty of earthly Beatrice (his long-lost girlfriend) for the greater love of God.
So like us.
Love is common, but we dabble at it. It’s a cup from which we sip but rarely drink deeply – with our whole heart. When Jesus cleared the temple of swindlers by flipping over their tables, the Bible says the disciples, seeing this were reminded of the verse “the zeal of Your house consumes me.” That’s loving with your whole heart. It’s messy, inconvenient and politically incorrect.
For zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.
Blake’s 102 drawings illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy were commissioned by John Linnell, the chief patron of Blake’s final years. Although Linnell did not begin to pay for the designs until December 1825, at the rate of about 1 pound a week, Blake probably began work on the drawings by the fall of 1824. They were left at Blake’s death in 1827 in various stages of completion, ranging from pencil sketches to highly finished water colors. Most show an expressive freedom in the handling of color washes far greater than Blake’s earlier water colors. In 1826, Blake began to engrave large plates based on 7 of the designs; these were also left incomplete at his death. The water colors remained in Linnell’s collection and estate until their sale at auction in 1918. Through a scheme organized by the National Art-Collections Fund, they were dispersed among 7 participating institutions: the Ashmolean Museum, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, the British Museum, the Fogg Art Museum, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Royal Institution of Cornwall, and the Tate Collection.
As we generally find with Blake’s illustrations to the works of other writers, he has paid close attention to the details of Dante’s poem. Yet, while faithful to the text, Blake also brings his own perspective to bear on some of Dante’s central themes, including sin, guilt, punishment, revenge, and salvation. In several designs, Blake’s pictorial imagery, particularly when associated with similar motifs in his illuminated books and their iconography, indicates a critical attitude towards Dante. This interpretation of the illustrations is buttressed by Blake’s verbal criticisms of Dante found in his c. 1800 annotations to Henry Boyd’s translation of The Inferno, his conversations with Henry Crabb Robinson in 1825, and his inscriptions on the rectos of a few of the Dante designs themselves. But harsh criticism coexists with many signs of intellectual sympathy in the illustrations.
We have recorded in the Editors’ Notes the inscriptions on the versos of the designs. None of these is attributable to Blake; some probably represent at least 2 attempts to organize the designs into their proper sequence. The arrangement of images given here accords with our understanding of the sequence of passages illustrated and varies at several junctures from Butlin’s ordering.
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in May or June of 1265 to a family of lesser nobility. The essential facts of his early life are told in his La vita nuova (The New Life), written in about 1293. One of the most important events of this period occurred when he was nine. At that time he met Beatrice, a young girl to whom he later dedicated most of his poetry and almost all of his life. Although he barely knew her and it is unlikely that they ever exchanged more than a few words, Dante loved Beatrice for the rest of his life. He eventually entered into an arranged marriage with Gemma Donati, and they had four children.
Dante started writing poetry at an early age. After Beatrice died he turned to philosophy in an attempt to find relief from his sorrow. His interest in philosophy was reflected in his poetry. He also became active in politics and played a part in the violent political and military conflicts that engulfed Italy (seeGuelfs and Ghibellines). A leader of the White Guelfs, he rose to high office in Florence and was sent as an ambassador to the pope in Rome in 1301.
The victory of the opposing party in Florence, the Black Guelfs, resulted in the banishment of the leaders of the White Guelfs. Dante was among those forced into exile in 1302. He lived in various places in Italy until at length he settled in Ravenna, where he died on Sept. 13 or 14, 1321. A small tomb in Ravenna holds the poet’s remains.
It was in Ravenna in about 1317, where he set about completing his masterpiece, La Commedia, begun a decade earlier. In essence, it is an epic poem chronicling an allegorical journey through the afterlife, divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The purpose, Dante wrote, was to convert a corrupt society to righteousness, “to remove those living in this life from a state of misery and lead them to a state of felicity.”
In Inferno, Dante is guided by the Roman poet Virgil through the nine concentric circles of hell (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”), where they meet various sinners from history, myth, and Dante’s enemies list. Purgatory is a nine-tiered mountain where Dante must confront his own shortcomings and seek redemption (“O conscience, upright and stainless, how bitter a sting to thee is a little fault!”). Before he reaches Paradise, Virgil is replaced by Dante’s long-lost Beatrice and Bernard of Clairvaux, and together they meet Dante’s heroes as they journey through the nine concentric circles of heaven (“Like the lark that soars in the air, first singing, then silent, content with the last sweetness that satiates it, such seems to me that image, the imprint of Eternal Pleasure”). Dante finished the epic poem just before his death, and it was almost immediately recognized as brilliant. His epitaph begins: “Dante the theologian, skilled in every branch of knowledge that philosophy may cherish in her illustrious bosom.”
Obviously a bibliography of this topic must begin with the Divine Comedy, but which translation? That depends. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s is a classic. Dorothy Sayers’s has the best notes. Robert Pinsky’s (Inferno only) is probably the most accessible to a modern reader.
Vita Nuova, Dante’s combination of poetry, autobiography, and writer’s workshop, brings the author to life. Il Convivio (“The Banquet”) and De Monarchia (“On Universal Monarchy”) explore his philosophical and political ideas. These are all readily available in print and online.
On the Comedy
Robert Royal’s Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality (Crossroad, 1999) serves as a basic guide to the complicated poem. Kathryn Lindskoog leads readers through Dante’s Divine Comedy: Purgatory (Mercer, 1997) by retelling the story in her own words. Rodney J. Payton also aims for accessibility in A Modern Reader’s Guide to Dante’s Inferno (Lang, 1992).
Geoffrey F. Nuttall takes the Comedy as the basis for warm, almost devotional, commentary in The Faith of Dante Alighieri (SPCK, 1969). From Hell to Paradise (Washington Square, 1996), by Olof Lagercrantz, offers a breezy walk-through of the poem but questions some Christian ideas, such as a literal hell.
From here, the thicket of Dante commentaries grows much denser. Sayers’s Introductory Papers on Dante (Barnes & Noble, 1969) goes beyond the generalist notes in her translation into specialist territory. Charles Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice (Faber & Faber, 1943) yields profound insights into Dante’s thoughts on divine love, but it’s a demanding read.
In The Invention of Dante’s Commedia (Yale, 1974), John G. Demaray highlights images and ideas—especially the concept of pilgrimage—that influenced Dante’s writing. Joan Ferrante takes a different approach in her influential The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy (Princeton, 1984).
On Dante and his world
A reader can find basic—though occasionally contradicting—information on the poet in a variety of sources, including Dante and His World by Thomas Caldecot Chubb (Little, Brown & Co., 1966), Dante Alighieri, His Life and Works by Paget Toynbee (Methuen & Co., 1900), and Dante and His Time by Karl Federn (Haskell House, 1970). Hollander’s “Dante: A Party of One,” which appeared in the April 1999 issue of First Things, is also a nice introduction.
Dante becomes the subject of deeper inquiry in books like Deborah Parker’s Commentary and Ideology: Dante in the Renaissance (Duke, 1993), James Collins’s Pilgrim in Love: An Introduction to Dante and His Spirituality (Loyola, 1984), and Erich Auerbach’s important Dante, Poet of the Secular World (University of Chicago, 1961).
To get a feel for Dante’s milieu, one can start with Charles L. Mee’s well-illustrated The Horizon Book of Daily Life in Renaissance Italy (McGraw-Hill, 1975) or Margaret Oliphant’s quirky The Makers of Florence: Dante, Giotto, Savonarola and Their City (Burt, 1897). For more serious study, see A History of Early Renaissance Italy, from the Mid-thirteenth to the Mid-fifteenth Centuries (St. Martins, 1973) by Brian S. Pullan or The World of Dante (Clarendon, 1980), edited by Cecil Grayson.
A devoted reader with a large travel budget (or a vivid imagination) could follow the route proposed by Anne Holler in Florence: Four Intimate Walking Tours (Holt & Co., 1982).
Dante sites online truly form a worldwide web—one page leads to another in an interconnected universe of text and links. These are just a few possible entry points:
• Digital Dante, http://dante.ilt.columbia.edu
• Dante Alighieri on the Web, www.greatdante.net
• Otfried Lieberknecht’s Homepage for Dante Studies, http://members.aol.com/lieberk/welc%5Fold.html
• Dante Divine Comedy Links, http://pages.ancientsites.com/~Torrey_Philemon/calliope/dante.htm
• Renaissance Dante in Print, www.italnet.nd.edu/Dante/
Dew — is the Freshet in the Grass —
‘Tis many a tiny Mill
Turns unperceived beneath our feet
And Artisan lies still —
We spy the Forests and the Hills
The Tents to Nature’s Show
Mistake the Outside for the in
And mention what we saw.
Could Commentators on the Sign
Of Nature’s Caravan
Obtain “Admission” as a Child
Some Wednesday Afternoon.
And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them.
But Jesus called for them, saying,
“Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”
For John Steinbeck, as for William Wordsworth and William Blake, a child’s lucid vision captures the essentials. Steinbeck scrawled reminders to himself: capture a “child’s vision” because “adults haven’t the clear fine judgment of children.” That meant to write with precision and freshness. Truth is like clear pure water.
In his book The Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck wrote:
We have not known a single great scientist who could not discourse freely and interestingly with a child. Can it be that the haters of clarity have nothing to say, have observed nothing, have no clear picture of even their own fields? A dull man seems to be a dull man no matter what his field, and of course it is the right of a dull scientist to protect himself with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees, as do other dull men who are potentates and grand imperial rulers of lodges of dull men.
When Emily Dickinson wrote of “obtaining admission as a Child” to Nature’s Caravan, she evoked the words of Jesus who reminded his listeners that entering into the kingdom of God requires doing so as a child. In all of the complexity of such a profound truth, the picture is that of a wide-eyed child whose heart is filled with joy and delight.
The relationship between God and his chosen people, often described in the Bible as a marriage, is also figured in terms of a parent-child relationship (e.g., Deut. 14:1; see also Pss. 73:15; 103:13). Occasionally in the OT Gentiles are also referred to as children of God (e.g., Isa. 45:11). In the NT what the Israelites were by birthright Gentile Christians, according to the apostle Paul, could hope to be by adoption: “He hath chosen us. … Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself” (Eph. 1:4–5; see also Rom. 8:15–23; Gal. 4:5). Just as there are children of the flesh, then, so there are also “children of the promise,” and these may be as Isaac was to Ishmael—“not children of the bondwoman, but of the free” (Gal. 4:22–31).
The injunction to “honour thy father and thy mother” is prominent among the Ten Commandments and the first commandment with a promise attached. Dependence, trust, and humility are taken as normative in a child’s relationship to his or her parents and, indeed, in that of the children of God to their heavenly Father: “LORD my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty … as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child” (Ps. 131:2). Thus, when Jeremiah was called by God, he pleaded inadequacy in terms of childlike dependence: “Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.” Exemplary obedience and trust are likewise emphasized in the story of the child Samuel, as well as in canonical accounts of Jesus’ childhood. (Extrabiblical childhood narratives, by contrast, are concerned to demonstrate that Jesus’ divine powers were already present in his early years.) Such qualities are also assumed in Christ’s words, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:13–16; cf. Matt. 11:25; 18:3). It was a child whom St. Augustine heard in his garden, saying, “Tolle, lege; tolle, lege” (“Take it up, read; take it up, read”) (Conf., bk. 8). Since Augustine was struggling at this time against (among other things) his Manichaean desires for special knowledge, the child seems to recall not only humility like Jeremiah’s but also the biblical tradition of divine wisdom which is often seen as foolishness in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 1:18–27).
In English literary tradition Vaughan, Traherne, Herbert, Herrick, and Crashaw among others adopt a posture of comparable humility: each writes poems using a child, or a childlike persona (see, e.g., Herrick’s “To his Saviour, a Child; a Present, by a Child” and Herbert’s “H. Baptisme II”). Chaucer’s Prioress, too, wants to be seen as a participant in this tradition. She realizes that God can be praised “by the mouth of children” as well as “by men of dignitee” (Prologue to the Prioress’s Tale) and so hopes that, like the child in her tale, she might sing a song of praise. But since she neglects her adult and spiritual responsibilities, the apostle Paul probably provides the aptest gloss: “In malice be ye children, but in understanding be ye men” (1 Cor. 14:20; cf. Matt. 10:16). Paul is expressing his displeasure that the Corinthians are still spiritual children at a time when they ought to have developed in the faith. As Augustine puts it, “Let your old age be childlike, and your childhood like old age; that is, that neither may your wisdom be with pride, nor your humility without wisdom” (Enarr. in Ps. 113.2 [NPNF 8.548]; see also Enarr. in Ps. 131.5 [NPNF 8.615).
The Bible has little to say about the innocence of children. Even Christ’s “Except you be converted, and become as little children” (Matt. 18:3) has more to do with humility and obedience than innocence per se. In traditional Christian thought, innocence is attached to infancy but not to childhood. The infant, although guilty of original sin, has not the capacity to turn the inclination to sin into actual sin; hence the phrase “the slaughter of the innocents” used of Herod’s murder of infants (cf. Augustine’s comment that “the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind” (Conf., bk. 1).
The notion of childhood innocence arose in connection with the Enlightenment’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin and belief in naturally good human nature being perverted by evil social customs. Rousseau’s Emile is the key statement of this view, although Locke’s philosophy of education had already shifted the understanding of human nature away from original sin to human potentialities and so made the education of children more important—because more promising—than hitherto. Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is an important Romantic expression of the Enlightenment view of childhood, as are Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience,” which together reflect the author’s gnostic belief that good has to encompass evil but that innocence can be recovered on a higher level of inclusive gnosis.
Victorian literature is characterized by a sentimental view of children. Many of Dickens’s child protagonists, embodying a kind of Edenic innocence, act as parents to their elders, protecting adults who have become victims of an evil environment. Thus Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop embodies both the tradition of the innocence of the child—being contrasted with the evil Quilp and with all the ancient instruments of war which surround her in the Shop—and the tradition of the wisdom of the child—as in her reversing roles with her grandfather (chaps. 15 and 16).
By the end of the 19th cent., reaction to Victorian sentimentality gave rise to a more realistic (and sometimes Christian) portrayal of children as by nature inclined to evil rather than good and deserving to be made accountable for their actions. Literary examples of this changed attitude include Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, Hilaire Belloc’s Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and More Beasts for Worse Children, and the stories of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s early school stories show children as displaying the same good and evil characteristics found in adults.
Increasingly, though, his fiction portrays children as consistently adult in their capacity for evil but lacking in adult social conscience. Wodehouse’s spirited female adults encourage girl children to act on their antisocial impulses. His male adults view with dismay the destructive deeds of their boy counterparts, often expressing sympathy for Herod’s solution to the problem of their continued existence.
Freud’s theories of sexuality in infants support the new antisentimental view of childhood innocence which is reflected in such books as Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is in the same tradition, having been written, the author says, as a deliberate refutation of the view of boyhood projected in R. M. Ballantyne’s popular adventure story, Coral Island (1858).
Bibliography. d’Ariès, P. Centuries of Childhood (1962); Marcus, L. S. Childhood and Cultural Despair: A Theme and Variations in Seventeenth Century Literature (1978); Stone, H. Dickens and the Invisible World (1979); Walquist, D. J. “The Best Copy of Adam: Seventeenth-Century Attitudes Toward Childhood and the Poetry of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Traherne.” DAI 39 (1979), 6785A. David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Theology is not tidy. Anyone who says otherwise, whether conservative or liberal is either arrogant or uninformed. Though many brilliant thinkers have written helpful systematic theologies, God simply can’t be summarized. As a wise man once said “God cannot be thought, He can only be loved.” The childlike heart of a true believer embraces God for all that He might be, simply because He is. This was William Blake.
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :
Blake’s theology was a concoction of his own making, a mixture of traditional Christian belief with some elements freely cribbed from various less traditional sources and a large dollop of his own unique and idiosyncratic mystical insights. The details and symbolism in his more complex poems are so arcane that few can honestly claim to grasp the entire system and its attendant mythology. How literally he took all his own imaginative musings about divinity and humanity is probably an open question. He did not believe that the Bible should be read literally, and one cannot help but wonder what he would have thought of those who try to read his own religious musings too literally. But he did have a central concern with pointing readers away from traditional religious conceptions and toward a faith emphasizing freedom and the primacy of the heart. Rejecting the idea of original sin, Blake embraced what might be called “original innocence.” He saw in children a natural goodness and purity of heart that was usually lost by the time most people reached adulthood.
In Blake’s system of thought, religion itself is one of the culprits in our loss of original innocence, for religion has too often focused on rules, regulations, and restrictions. It is often more about the attempt to prevent or suppress certain kinds of behaviors through conventional morality rather than celebrating the earthly (and sometimes earthy) joys of human life.
(1757–1827), poet, artist, and visionary. Apprenticed to an engraver from 1771 to 1778, he became, through frequent work in *Westminster Abbey, imbued with the spirit of Gothic art which remained his guiding ideal throughout his life. In 1789 he finished his Songs of Innocence, a collection of poems of childlike simplicity which included ‘The Divine Image’, where God and His image, man, are hymned as ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love’. The book was engraved by hand and illustrated by coloured drawings, a technique adopted in most of his subsequent works. It was followed by The Book of Thel (1789) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), allegorical poems full of obscure though often beautiful imagery, which Blake used to express his religious convictions. The Songs of Experience (1794) are a kind of complement to the Songs of Innocence, though on a sterner note and penetrated by a deep sense of the darker side of life, e.g. in the famous ‘Tyger’. His later poetical works, written in something like free verse, are increasingly given over to theosophical speculations and unintelligible allegories. At the same time his compositions gained in artistic maturity. About 1795 he produced a series of large colour prints of much imaginative power, including the magnificent ‘The Elohim creating Adam’, and in 1797 his illustrations of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. In 1804 he published his poem Milton, the proem of which consists of the famous lines ‘Jerusalem’, much used (with the music of Hubert Parry) as a national hymn. In the following years he produced engravings for Robert Blair’s Grave of high visionary qualities, but, like most of his drawings, not without flaws in technique. From 1808 to 1818 he was occupied with writing and illustrating his great allegorical poem Jerusalem, in which St *Teresa and Mme *Guyon figure among ‘the gentle souls who guide the great winepress of Love’. His unconventional religious beliefs found fresh expression in an unfinished poem, The Everlasting Gospel, which rejects the traditional picture of a meek and humble Christ. His greatest work, the Illustrations to the Book of Job, completed in the last years of his life (1821–1825, pub. 1826), consists of 21 engravings showing the dealings of God with Job from the peaceful contentment of the opening scene, through the despair of the tormented Job accusing his Creator, to the rapturous bliss of his final restoration. The figures, often of elemental strength and beauty, move in the atmosphere of crude black and white contrasts which invests Blake’s works with their characteristic impression of haunting unreality.
Blake’s art, which spurns reason as well as nature and lives solely in the realm of imagination, was inseparable from his religion, which was itself a religion of art. Opposed to both dogma and asceticism, it flowed from a boundless sympathy with all living things which Blake identified with the forgiveness of sins proclaimed by the Gospel. Though he was little understood by his contemporaries, his visionary genius, both as a poet and an artist, has been increasingly admired since its discovery by A. C. Swinburne and interpretation by W. B. Yeats. His insistence on the supremacy of the spiritual world, though unbalanced by reason and a sound sense of reality, has acted as a powerful antidote to 19th cent. materialism.
The idea that the unconscious is the ultimate explanation for human behaviour is echoed in the artistic and literary movements that take inspiration in part from Freud. The use of Western rationality and technology in the service of the industrial slaughter of the First World War, coupled with the dehumanising bureaucracy of modern life portrayed so vividly by Kafka, led early twentieth-century avant-garde movements in Europe to turn away from reason in favour of emotion, the a-rational, the shocking and the violent.
The disruption of rational and aesthetic norms also plays an important part in the self-theorising of the Surrealist movement. Founded by André Breton (1896–1966) in 1924, Surrealism is notorious for a series of high-profile spats between its leading lights, including Breton himself, Louis Aragon (1897–1982), Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), Georges Bataille (1897–1962) and Salvador Dalí (1904–1989). When Dalí agreed to create Surrealist window displays in New York department stores and endorsed themed ashtrays and playing cards, Breton was so incensed that he anagrammatically renamed the treacherous Dalí ‘Avida Dollars’.
Breton, who came to his understanding of Surrealism from his work as a psychiatrist involved with soldiers traumatised by the First World War, defined Surrealism in the following way:
SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
As with William Blake a century previously, reason for Breton is an iron cage that stifles human freedom, the bars of which must be broken. Surrealism is a revolt against all forms of realism, against rationality itself, in an attempt to liberate unconscious creativity.
The Surrealists sought acceptance from Freud, but he was never as well disposed towards them as they were to him. They share Freud’s interest in dreams, but for the Surrealists the unconscious is in more of a dialectic relationship with the rational mind than it is for Freud. Striking a rather Hegelian pose, Breton declares, ‘I believe in the future resolution of those two apparently contradictory states, dream and reality, in a kind of absolute reality, of surreality.’ This overcoming of contradiction as a means to a new, broader understanding can also be seen in the strange juxtapositions that the Surrealists were fond of making, juxtapositions that Breton described as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!’ There is both an acknowledgment and a parodic rejection of the Hegelian dialectic in the way that such a juxtaposition of opposites produces a startling new effect, yet without being part of any overarching rational progress, either of the Spirit in history (as for Hegel) or of the overthrow of capitalism for the classless society (as for Marx).
Surrealist aesthetics sought to bypass the stifling control of the rational mind. The Surrealists practised ‘automatic writing’, the production of text in a state of trance or loss of rational control, as a way of achieving Breton’s ‘pure psychic automatism’. Another means to bypass the censorship of the rational mind was chance. The story is told of how a group of Surrealists would gather at 54 Rue du Château, in the 14th arrondissement of Paris and play parlour games, the most famous of which was named ‘the exquisite corpse’, known to many children as the game of ‘consequences’. Each participant in turn would write one phrase of a sentence, fold over the paper, and pass it to the next contributor, not knowing what the others had written before. Apparently, the first time the game was played the final sentence read ‘Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau’ (‘The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine’), and the name stuck. For Breton, ‘with the Exquisite Corpse we had at our command an infallible way of holding the critical intellect in abeyance, and of fully liberating the mind’s metaphorical activity’.
Christopher Watkin, From Plato to Postmodernism: The Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011), 176–179.
The best edns. of his writings are those by G. [L.] Keynes (3 vols., London, 1925, repr., with additional material, 1966) and G. E. Bentley, Jun. (2 vols., Oxford, 1978). Id., Blake Records (ibid., 1969).
M. Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (2 vols., New Haven, Conn., and London, 1981). Life by A. Gilchrist (2 vols., London, 1863), repr. in Everyman’s Library (1942).
Modern studies by M. Wilson (London, 1927; 3rd edn. by G. [L.] Keynes, 1971), T. Wright (2 vols., Olney, Bucks, 1929), K. [J.] Raine (London, 1970), J. King (ibid., 1991), and P. Ackroyd (ibid., 1995).
G. [L.] Keynes, Blake Studies (1949; 2nd edn., Oxford, 1971);
G. W. Digby, Symbol and Image in William Blake (ibid., 1957); G. M. Harper, The Neoplatonism of William Blake (Chapel Hill, NC, and London, 1961);
M. D. Paley and M. Phillips (eds.), William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford, 1973).
P. Berger, William Blake: Mysticisme et poésie (1906; Eng. tr., 1914); J. G. Davies, The Theology of William Blake (1948).
D. Bindman, Blake as an Artist (Oxford, 1977). R. N. Essick, William Blake Printmaker (Princeton, NJ, 1980); id., The Separate Plates of William Blake: A Catalogue (ibid., 1983).
M. Eaves, William Blake’s Theory of Art (ibid., 1982). S. F. Damon, A Blake Dictionary (Providence, RI, 1965).
G. [L.] Keynes, A Bibliography of William Blake (New York, 1921);
G. E. Bentley, Jun., and M. K. Nurmi, A Blake Bibliography (Minneapolis, 1964; rev. as Blake Books, Oxford, 1977; Suppl., ibid. 1995).
Blake Newsletter, 1–10 (Berkeley, Calif., 1967–77); Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, 11 ff. (ibid., 1977 ff.).
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 215.
Blake, William. William Blake: A Selection of Poems and Letters. New York: Penguin, 1958.
Langridge, Irene. William Blake: A Study of His Life and Art Work. London: Chiswick Press, 1904.
Muggeridge, Malcolm. A Third Testament. New York: Little, Brown, 1976.
Sagar, Keith. “William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience.”
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.
Let’s explore together!
Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
Order it HERE today.