Monday, August 02, 2010

`But Reason Has Short Wings'

“the heart
Must bear the longest part.”

Sometimes good taste in poetry seems almost as endangered as the Karner blue butterfly – or good poetry. For an academic to shown discernment in such matters seems miraculous. It helps, of course, that Robert Louis Wilken teaches the history of Christianity, not English, at the University of Virginia. The lines above, from George Herbert’s “Antiphon,” are among the four epigraphs to his The Spirit of Early Christianity (Yale University Press, 2003). The others are taken from 2 Corinthians, Saint Basil of Caesarea and Dante’s Paradiso.

Wilken devotes much of a chapter to Prudentius, the fourth-century Roman Christian poet of whom he writes: “Unlike Jerome, Prudentius did not reject the Muses. He saw no reason Christians should shun literature.” I know little of Prudentius and will fix that failing, but the final sentence of the Prudentius chapter impressed me:

“His oeuvre is at once deeply Christian and indisputably literary, and it set the Christian intellectual tradition on a course that would find place for poets as different as Dante Alighieri, William Langland, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, and Geoffrey Hill.”

Fine company. That was Chapter 9, and the next begins with an epigraph from David Jones, the Welsh poet and artist, author of In Parenthesis and The Anathemata: “We already and first of all discern him making this thing other.” History, theology and philosophy intelligently leavened with poetry. I didn’t expect this when I picked up Wilken’s book, but things got even better in Chapter 12, “The Knowledge of Sensuous Intelligence,” which takes its title from “That Man as a Rational Animal Desires the Knowledge Which Is His Perfection,” the second poem in Geoffrey Hill’s Canaan (1996). Wilken reproduces the poem as his epigraph to the chapter:

“Abiding provenance I would have said
the question stands
even in adoration
clause upon clause
with or without assent
reason and desire on the same loop—
I imagine singing I imagine
getting it right—the knowledge
of sensuous intelligence
entering into the work—
spontaneous happiness as it was once
given our sleeping nature to awaken by
and know
innocence of first inscription”

It’s a pleasure to read a familiar Hill poem in an unfamiliar but congenial context. Wilken reproduces line six through ten at the conclusion of his final chapter, preceded by these sentences:

“`Knowledge becomes love,’ says Gregory [of Nyassa], `because that which is known is by nature beautiful.’ Christian thinking, like all thinking, requires questioning, reflection, interpretation, argument. But reason has short wings. Without love it is tethered to the earth."

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