Poems of Faith and Doubt

Meeting chaired by Janet Cunliffe-Jones

22 June 2005

Janet Cunliffe-Jones, the Convenor, had taken the title for this event from an Anthology of Victorian poetry which had once been an A level set text. She thought the theme had relevance before and after the nineteenth century. Readings, selected from long poems, had been prepared by five people, and after that it was hoped, others present would read shorter poems on the theme which they had brought with them.

Poets do not write theology, or propose wide-ranging theories but respond to life as they find it. Affected by the times they live in, whether they accept or reject their common beliefs, they write about their experience, which might be religious, or experience of life, often of loss and suffering.

Janet Cunliffe-Jones and June Bunce read from the closing stanzas of Dante’s Paradiso. Dante, a mediaeval man, whose faith is unquestioned, struggles to express a vision he knows is inexpressible – but what he finds at the heart of it, is love.

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Janet Cunliffe-Jones said that while typing those stanzas, she found herself thinking of Shelley. He claimed to be an atheist – perhaps partly from a wish to shock – and certainly rejected all organised religion. But in the last stanzas of Adonais, the elegy Shelley wrote for the death of Keats (but also, perhaps, for the recent death of his own little son, William), the language of this professed atheist bears a remarkable resemblance to Dante’s.

He is made one with Nature, there is heard

His voice in all her music, from the moan

Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;

He is a presence to be felt and known

In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,

Spreading itself where’er that Power may move

Which has withdrawn his being to its own;

Which wields the world with never-wearied love,

Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.

 

The One remains, the many change and pass;

 

Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly . . . .

The soul of Adonais, like a star,

Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

Here Shelley, the atheist, uses words, often with capital letters, such as Power, Spirit, Heaven, the Light, the Beauty, the Benediction, sustaining Love, the Eternal.

Gavin Turner then read The Bermudas by Andrew Marvell who wrote this poem in the 1650s, after meeting someone who had sought refuge in Bermuda from religious persecution, and returned during the Commonwealth. The poem gives thanks to God for the protection of puritans during the reign of Charles I, and particularly from persecution by Archbishop Laud. The Bermudas are seen as a sactuary, with many natural blessings.

. . . Safe from the storms, and Prelate’s rage.

. . . He hangs in shade the orange bright

Like golden lamps in a green night.

And does in the pomegranates close,

Jewels more rich than Ormus shows.

The poem is supposed to be sung by rowers, as they approach the shore, and the rhythm reflects the movement of the oars.

Rosemary Marshall studied Tennyson for the discussion. She said his doubts arose from a clash between Wordsworth’s concept, that Nature was the ground of his moral being, and his own very different sense of nature. This was exacerbated by the death of Tennyson’s dear friend Arthur Hallam. Rosemary said that returning to Tennyson’s work she found it very accessible, and surprisingly modern, speaking especially to those who suffered loss or depression. She took most of her quotations from In Memoriam. Tennyson visits the street, the ‘dark house’, where Hallam had lived:

He is not here, but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly through the drizzling rain

On the bald street, breaks the blank day.

While Tennyson never quite lost his faith, he found it very difficult, as Hallam’s death led him to the sort of questions he found in the book of Job, about suffering under a supposedly loving God. Gavin Turner read some of the bleakest lines of In Memoriam on Rosemary’s behalf:

Are God and Nature then at strife,

That Nature lends such evil dreams

So careful of the type she seems,

So careless of the single life; . . . .

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,

And gather dust and chaff, and call

To what I feel is Lord of all,

And faintly trust the larger hope.

"So careful of the type?" but no,

from scarped cliff and quarried stone

she cries, "A thousand types are gone:

I care for nothing, all shall go.

"Thou makest thine appeal to me:

I bring to life, I bring to death:

The spirit does but mean the breath:

I know no more." And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seemed so fair,

Such splendid purpose in his eyes ...

Who trusted God was love indeed,

And love Creation’s final law –

Though Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shrieked against his creed –

Who loved, who suffered countless ills,

Who battled for the True, the Just,

Be blown about the desert dust,

Or sealed within the iron hills? ...

O life as futile, then, as frail!

O for thy voice to soothe and bless!

What hope of answer, or redress?

Behind the veil, behind the veil.

This was, perhaps, Tennyson’s lowest point. It ends on a question, not a statement, and from there Tennyson moves on to acceptance and hope.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind. . .

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

He rediscovers beauty in nature:

Now fades the last long streaks of snow,

Now burgeons every maze of quick

About the flowering squares, and thick

By ashen roots the violets blow.

Even the ‘bald street’ which he once found so terrible is transformed:

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, not as one that weeps

I come once more: the city sleeps;

I smell the meadow in the street;

I hear a chirp of birds; I see

Betwixt the blank fronts long withdrawn

A light-blue lane of early dawn,

And think of early days, and thee.

Tennyson now accepts the great movement of the ages, and finds that grief can lead back to faith.

Rosemary Marshall pointed out that Tennyson had affected a wide range of people in the 19th century She read a passage from a letter by Elizabeth Gaskell, who had obtained a signed copy of Tennyson’s works for Samuel Bamford, a Lancashire Weaver and poet; Gaskell describes how when given the book he stood still reading it in the middle of the traffic!

Finally, June Bunce read Tennyson’s last poem, Crossing the Bar, which he asked to be placed at the end of all editions of his works:

Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may ther be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea ...

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crossed the bar.

Janet Cunliffe-Jones then introduced and read Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, which seemed to follow very well the sea-imagery in Crossing the Bar. Arnold was several years younger than Tennyson, and his view is bleaker. The poem was inspired, if not written, on his honeymoon, when spending a night at Dover on the way to France, which throws light on the conclusion, with its emphasis on personal love.

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar ...

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This being the end of the prepared readings, there was a little discussion of Arnold’s metaphor. It was pointed out, that though the tide withdraws, it comes in again. Arnold’s sense of confusion and insecurity made him very much a poet for our time.

The Convenor then invited reading of poems on the same theme from anyone present.

Sue Boyle read The Island, by the priest, R S Thomas. As she said, the bleakness of Arnold was taken further in this account of an island people and a callous God.

Martin Sturge read an anonymous poem, slightly agnostic, he said:

And so we run

In seeking where may hope abound –

In answers? – none –

But in questions rather faith is found.

Geraldine Lindley brought a poem by Tony Harrison. She called him a ‘card-carrying atheist’, but she could find hints of the numinous in his poetry. She read Long Distance, written after his mother’s death, and about his aged, bereaved father.

John Bulman read Herbert’s The Flower. He said Herbert was deeply Christian, unlike himself, but he could relate to the metaphor in this poem, which tells how plants survive winter and ‘bud again’, as Herbert’s ‘shrivelled heart’ has ‘recovered greenness’ after a period of struggle and despair.

Pat Adelman brought a poem translated from Polish. It was by Wislawa Szymborska, and can be found in the collection The Burning Forest, published by Bloodaxe.

Utopia

An island, where everything becomes clear.

... Here grows the tree of Proper Conjecture,

its branches eternally untangled.

The dazzlingly straight tree of Understanding

is next to a spring called Ah So That’s How It Is. . . .

Despite these attractions, the island is deserted,

and the tiny footmarks seen along the shores

all point towards the sea.

As though people always went away from here

And irreversibly plunged into the deep.

In life that’s inconceivable.

Simon Farrow read a poem of Heinrich Heine’s, called Deutschland. Heine, a Jew by birth, became a sceptic, with a similarity to Shelley, but later returned to his faith. The poem told of a little girl singing – a song of cliches about heaven awaiting us after a life of trials. The poet called for a better song about making a heaven on earth, where there would be bread enough for all, and even roses, myrtles, and ‘fresh green peas’.

Marie-Louise Luxemburg read an extract from Renaissance by Edna St Vincent Millay, in which the poet, after a nightmare of desolation, is revived by the sight and scent of an apple tree.

Judith Young read from Crow, by Ted Hughes, a very dark poem, as she said, written after the second suicide which closely affected his life. She chose Crow’s Theology:

Crow realised God loved him –

Otherwise he would have dropped dead . . .

But what

Loved the stones and spoke stone?

... and what loved the shot pellets

That dribbled from those strung-up mummifying crows?

What spoke the silence of lead?

Janet Cunliffe-Jones read Prayer, by Carol Ann Duffy, a poem perhaps for a lapsed believer, or non-believer, who still, sometimes, ‘hopes it might be so’.

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer

utters itself. So, a woman will lift

her head from the sieve of her hands and stare

at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

We had another poem by Tennyson, June Bracken and Heather, and Clough’s Say not the Struggle. (We noticed that there had been a lot of sea imagery in poems read this evening.) With one or two other poems read on the spur of the moment the evening was brought to a close.

Janet Cunliffe-Jones