Poetry as Written Prayer: The Achievement of Dom Julian Stead, O.S.B.

Much has been made in recent years about the fact that we are living through a period of artistic sterility and mediocrity. The lack of great novelists, poets, painters, and composers is bemoaned; symposia are convened to explicate the crisis; alarmed critics are interviewed for their diagnosis. On the whole, the reasons given for this cultural wasteland are shallow and pedantic, usually boiling down to a diatribe against “Reaganite capitalism” and “fundamentalist censorship.” When a Walker Percy argues that contemporary art is lifeless because we have lost the cultural cohesiveness derived from spiritual and moral norms, he is politely reviewed, and quickly ignored.

For orthodox Christians, who are more receptive to Percy’s thesis, there is an additional, and perhaps equally disturbing question: where, amidst the artistic rubble of our day, is there any outstanding Christian art? Where, in short, is the imaginative expression of man’s relationship to God being embodied in an enduring form? So thorough is the secularism in our society that we are hard pressed for an answer.

Now some of the great Christian critics of this century, such as T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and W.H. Auden, have warned against the idea that there can be a specifically “Christian” art. “There can no more be a ‘Christian’ art,” Auden reminds us, “than there can be a Christian science or a Christian diet.” The skills of artistic craftsmanship remain the same, whether applied to an icon or a detective story. But even when such strictures are granted, there remains an obvious fact: namely, that over the centuries much of the finest art has had as its subject the justification of the ways of God to man. In the realm of literature alone, the tradition runs from the epic of Gilgamesh, through the Book of Job and the Psalms, the Greek tragedies, and on into the Christian era of Augustine, Dante, Milton, and others. Even after the humanizing influence of the Renaissance had set in, writers like Bunyan, Hopkins, and T.S. Eliot pursued, or were pursued by, the hidden God.

Nonetheless, the Christian artist in the modern, secular world increasingly found his relationship to the public problematic. In order to communicate the reality of Christian experience to a culture largely composed of unbelievers and Christians whose sense of the supernatural had been eroded by liberal “demythologizers,” the Christian artist felt impelled to follow methods of indirection. Confronted by the grim industrialization of Britain, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins felt that the only way to regain a unity between God, man, and nature was through a complex linguistic and rhythmic style which recreated the divine unity. When T.S. Eliot first began to write poems on Christian themes, he deliberately avoided direct references to Christ: “Journey of the Magi” does not even describe the Christ child; the closest it comes is the line “There was a birth.” Even Eliot’s profound exploration of Christian experience, Four Quartets, is shrouded in mystical allusiveness. The odd “thrillers” of Charles Williams are highly symbolic representations of Christian truths. And the use of violence and the grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction were part of her attempt to resensitize people to the reality of evil and divine mediation in the world.

 

It was the young John Keats, a representative of modern consciousness in so many ways, who wrote that “we distrust poetry that has a palpable design on us.” Keats was indicting not only the bad didactic poetry of the eighteenth century, but any kind of art which seeks to impress a sense of moral obligation on us. As the logic of secularism has unfolded in this century, it has become more and more difficult to portray the Christian insight into being, so that in the past few years the only Christian poetry one could find was the maudlin, sentimental verse in the diocesan newspaper, or the heavily politicized “art” which turned the Third World into a thing to be worshipped. The rest (to paraphrase Hamlet) has been silence.

But I can’t say that now. For the silence has been broken by the voice of a remarkable poet, Dom Julian Stead, O.S.B. of Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island. The recent publication of a collection of his poetry (There Shines Forth Christ, verse by Dom Julian Stead,  Still River, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1983) brings to the public verse written over four decades, some of which has appeared in Commonweal and New Oxford Review, but most being previously unpublished.

I have to admit that I came to the poetry of Dom Julian with a handicap. I had too many preconceptions about him. Like so many others, I had read about Dom Julian in Sheldon Vanauken’s moving autobiographical story, A Severe Mercy. There I learned about the humorous and devout Benedictine brother, priest, and poet who had shared in the idyllic Oxford years when Sheldon and Jean Vanauken, despite their pagan belief in the self-sufficiency of romantic love, admitted a Third into their relationship, and became Christians. The late-night conversations about the Faith which took place in the Vanaukens’ flat, and in which Dom Julian was often a participant, are recalled vividly by Mr. Vanauken. The wit, gaiety, and spiritual commitment of those evenings leave a deep impression on most readers. Beyond the Oxford years, in the sadness of Jean’s illness and death, Dom Julian remained a distant, but spiritually close, friend.

When I came to read There Shines Forth Christ, instead of the somewhat larger-than-life figure I expected, I found a man — a literate and devout man, to be sure, but one troubled by the same daily struggle to be open to God’s love and call to holiness that any Christian experiences. Moreover, I found a poet who had mastered his craft (perhaps it is no coincidence that poet is a Benedictine, whose motto is “ora et labora,” work and prayer), and who was able to write of his spiritual life directly, with simplicity and fervor. At a time when art has been so thoroughly politicized, Dom Julian’s poetry conveys the interior space of the contemplative life, and affirms the primacy of the private realm.

Dom Julian’s poetry is personal, but it is not inaccessible. He has nothing of the self-dramatizing anguish of John Donne (“Batter my heart, Three-person’d God”), but he depicts the more common human emotions of joy and depression, pathos and regret. Dom Julian is not an intellectual poet, but he is a “wit” in the proper sense of that word: a lover of language, who can see divine analogies in puns and the creative power of God in meter. It would be wrong to schematize Dom Julian’s poetry, but one way of getting closer to his achievement is to divide his poetry thematically into poems of struggle, poems of meditation, and poems of place.

“Most of my verse is written prayer,” writes Dom Julian in the ‘Autobiographical Note’ at the end of the book, “stimulated by the natural hunger for God which is not a happy, though a normal, experience.” Of course all men, because the law of God is written in their hearts, have a natural hunger for God, but most of us sinners settle for lesser gods. Dom Julian, as poet (and monk), provides an intensely vivid enactment of what most people feel faintly, as in a waking dream. Like George Herbert, he lives in a dialogue with the Hound of Heaven, speaking in the colloquial voice of daily life. “Our Father” is a poem reminiscent of Herbert’s “The Collar”: after the speaker works himself into a frenzy because he cannot understand “The Who and What and how,” the still small voice of God replies: “My child, believe/And on your credence/Cease to grieve.” The comic double meaning of “credence” deflates the speaker’s posturing: God says, in effect, don’t worry about understanding, and don’t think that the holy mysteries hang on your intellectual “search.”

Most of Dom Julian’s poems of struggle do not have a comic resolution; they are less “happy,” but they all achieve a hard-earned, and convincing, affirmation. There is no evasion, and the poet’s honesty can be unflinching, as in the taut sonnet of longing for the zeal of youth, “0 Jesus, my once love for thee was fire.”

“Sea Moon” (see below) is not a typical poem of struggle because its speaker is not directly involved in the conflict, but it illustrates the poetic use of paradox which Dom Julian employs to evoke the spiritual life, and it has a haunting beauty which is another mark of this poet. The moon, traditionally, is a symbol of cold, clear “rationality” untempered by emotion; as Chesterton pointed out, the “lunatic” is one whose rationality has been taken to an extreme. So it is in this poem, where the moon hangs over the teeming life of earth impassively, “watching” but not “seeing,” reality. The moon’s light is reflected; he is the “landlord of the night.” Suddenly, in the description of this dull impassivity, comes the line, “How can he hear the mouth gasping in the ocean?” Immediately the reader is jolted by a disturbing, concrete image of a drowning man who, it seems, is a symbol of the human predicament. The poet addresses the drowning man, warning him that the moon will not hear him and that his cry “cannot fill the sea and sky.” Appeals to rationality and prideful self-pity will not save him. Rather, in terms reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s “way of dispossession” in Four Quartets, he is told that “the way down is the way up-ward.” The gasping man should become one with the element that appears to threaten him, following Our Lord’s paradox of losing one’s life in order to gain it. The poem appropriately closes with a flurry of paradoxes: sweet salt, bright darkness, deep height. Only by identifying fully with the physical conditions of human life and death (“men die and marry and [are] born”), and avoiding sterile rationality, can man find his soul.

Dom Julian’s poems of meditation are based on scriptural events, bringing vitality and psychological realism to what too often become mere “readings” to be heard in church. The poet’s mission is constantly to make the familiar unfamiliar so that we can return to the essence of the known; “Make It New!” was Ezra Pound’s refrain. The Gospels present a particularly daunting task to the Christian poet. Eliot felt that only by indirection could he pull the secular reader back to the core (“There was a Birth, certainly”). Dom Julian recreates dramatically the Gospel scenes, viewed from the all-too-human perspective of the apostles and witnesses. The colloquial language, like that of Donne and Herbert, is direct, vigorous, lifelike. Take the first lines from several poems: “They’re crucifying my Rabbi/out there and I’m scared,” says St. Peter in “Out There,” in which the very indeterminacy of the phrase “out there” mines the immediacy of Peter’s situation. “Jesus saw a man doing a disgraceful job” opens the poem “Matthew.” The violence of the scourging of Jesus is emphasized by the alliteration in the opening lines of “Mockery”: “Did that back bleed? Was it not sticky and warm/to the touch of the lecher’s lash?” The linking of sexual lust and violence in the simple phrase “lecher’s lash” (as with Lear’s “rascal beadle”) points up the diseased manipulation, the ironic abuse of authority, as the King of Kings is whipped.

Another form Dom Julian’s poems of meditation takes is seen in the section at the end of the volume called “Afterthoughts.” These poems can only be described by the ungainly phrase, poetry as devotional exegesis. They are much longer than his lyrics, and are extended poetic meditations on scriptural passages: 2 Peter, Psalm 89, and The Song of Songs (there is one poem “suggested” by a hymn of St. Basil). Ideally, they should be read along with their Biblical sources, so that the prism of the poet’s mind can allow new meanings to flash out. More enigmatic than his lyric poetry, the “Afterthoughts” repay several readings.

“Earth has its heaven, its home,” Dom Julian’s poem “Maryland” begins, and some of his most moving poems derive from places he has lived or studied in. Raised in England, with youthful years in Kentucky and Maryland, study in Rome, and half a lifetime in the monastery of Ports-mouth Abbey in Rhode Island, the poet has found more than one heaven on earth. His poems of place are also Christian poems because he sees both the createdness of nature, and the stamp of human character on long-hallowed places. Again, is it a coincidence that the poet should be a Benedictine with a vow of stability?

The best poetry of place stems from Maryland. In his `Autobiographical Note,’ Dom Julian provides the reason: it was there that he first fell in love, but it was also where he first had a yearning for the monastic life. Neither desire is played down by the poet: the conflict and sacrifice are real. There is an emotional depth in these poems that is unique, but the conflict between the Affirmative and Negative ways causes the poet to return to one of his recurrent themes; the fallenness of nature and the manner in which grace permeates and redeems it. The Maryland poems contain many references to hunting and the inevitable ambiguities of killing.

“Confiteor” (see below), like “Sea Moon,” is one of Dom Julian’s more opaque poems, but it too embodies the underlying themes in his imaginative work. Like the pastoral poetry of Andrew Marvell, “Confiteor” harbors within its apparently naive exterior deeper and darker truths. The poet looks back on his youthful innocence and unalloyed pleasure in the beauty of nature. His song is the “lung laugh” of pure enjoyment. But the poem is written in the “present” by the adult poet and the raw experience of his childhood is evaluated. “The birds sang a lovelier song.” Here the range of the youth’s perception is challenged. And as in “Sea Moon,” an arresting line pulls the reader up short. The birds who sang the lovelier song “Sang it to death.” The normal sense of this colloquial phrase is reversed: rather than exhausting its power, the birds continue their beautiful song — literally — until they die. Though it is a “happy death” (an allusion to the felix culpa of the Fall?), the birds still die helplessly and in agony. The apple trees bring us back to Eden, but the poet’s world is fallen, for even the natural world bears the scars of the Fall; “earth’s trees’ root joy” is “broken.” The “bluejean kid” only saw the apple trees in “fat fruit,” not when they were bare. The more mature perception of the poet sees the fragility, and hence preciousness, of nature. The contingency of nature is but an aspect of its createdness. The birds chant the poet’s “confiteor,” they sing it for him before he has learned it for himself. But the word “confession” means both a statement of belief and penitence. Creed and penance are entwined in the poet’s intuitive grasp of the natural world’s evanescent, continually resurrected, beauty. Dom Julian shows, as Gerard Manley Hopkins did before him, that there is such a thing as Christian nature poetry.

In his “Autobiographical Note,” Dom Julian writes: “I have not intended to put myself on display, but to share with my fellow creatures what may be either an echo or a stimulus of their own feelings for God, for man, and for God’s created world of nature.” The echo, of course, provides the stimulus, for poetry might be called the art of “reminding.” With a clear voice, moving from the wincing honesty of self-confrontation to the lightheartedness of lyric joy and praise, Dom Julian Stead, monk and poet, has faithfully served his craft — and the Church.

SEA MOON
The moon is the landlord of the night
His face impassive and his movement unharried, unhurried
He watches men die and marry and be born
He looks down through lowered eyelids
And watches what he does not see
How can he hear the mouth gasping in the ocean?
Lift up your voice and cry
He cannot hear
Your voice cannot fill the sea and sky
Go down
The way down is the way upward
Darkness down, never to see
The unfeeling starlight
But the sweet salt dark and the brightness
Of the deep height.

CONFITEOR
When I was a bluejean kid
Footing Kentucky field path dust
The colors were sunlight green in the world
Summer sky blue
My song was a lung laugh
With face in the sun and eyes closed
The birds sang a lovelier song
Sang it to death
Happy death in earth’s forgetfulness.
Bare branches of apple trees
Where your feathers imperceptibly trembled
And fell to the ground in agony
Violin strings of earth’s trees’ root joy broken.
O bare branches of apple trees
I saw you in fat fruit green in sheep-shade
I loved you in that hour with your redwing blackbirds
That chanted my confiteor.

— DOM JULIAN STEAD, O.S.B.

From There Shines Forth Christ, published by Saint Bede’s Publications (P.O. Box 132, Still River, Massachusetts 01467)

Gregory Wolfe

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Gregory Wolfe is a writer, teacher, editor, and publisher. Both as a thinker and institution-builder, he has been a pioneer in the resurgence of interest in the relationship between art and religion—a resurgence that has had widespread impact both on religious communities and the public square. As an advocate for and exemplar of the tradition of Christian Humanism, Wolfe has established a reputation as an independent, non-ideological thinker—part gadfly, part peacemaker.

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