In The Varieties of Religious Experience, originally delivered as the “Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion” at the University of Edinburgh just over a century ago—and published, to great acclaim, in 1902—William James distinguished two types of judgment he thought appropriate for the study of religion. The first, which he termed “the existential judgment,” concerned the origins, history, and nature of religion; the second, which he defined as “a spiritual judgment,” dealt with the meaning and significance of religious phenomena. Though the first sort of judgment, dwelling on historical facts, might be necessary, its ultimate usefulness was questionable; it couldn’t serve by itself as “a guide to life” nor could it offer any “value for purposes of revelation.” Thus, in applying the first judgment to the Bible, that scripture “would probably fare ill,” he noted, for considered purely as an historical document, its all-too-human errors and biases would become painfully apparent. But if spiritual judgment were brought into play, then the fact that the Bible represents “a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate” would dispose us more freely to grant it revelatory power.
I invoke these distinctions not only because William James—along with Emerson and Whitman—represents one of the tutelary spirits presiding over American Religious Poems but, more to the point, because his spiritual judgment of the true worth of scripture, though inadequate when applied to the Bible itself, does provide an apt touchstone for the appraisal of that peculiar body of poetry we loosely call “religious.”1 We expect that the poems included in an anthology of religious verse will not only be good poems as poems but that they will strike us with a unique intensity. They may not overwhelm us or change our lives but they will at least persuade us that some momentous experience or insight, accompanied by some higher register of feeling, has befallen the poet, and, furthermore, that he or she has somehow managed to convey the shock of “great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate.” Of course, any good poem, on however profane a topic, can accomplish this in a lesser way. But I would argue that a “religious” poem, like a love poem, must be wrought to an even keener pitch; nothing’s worse than a flaccid ode to a beloved, unless it is the conventional devotional poem in all its saccharine insincerity. We expect to see “a soul at the ‘White Heat,’” as Emily Dickinson put it, and yet, it is the tepid, the lukewarm, which predominates in much “religious” verse, for all its ostensible fervor. The failure of most religious poetry isn’t merely aesthetic; it’s of feeling too.
I think, too, though it’s harder to articulate exactly, that we expect from such a collection something beyond a purely aesthetic experience. We may not expect revelation, but we hope, however vaguely, to read poems which confer a deeper meaning on our own lives, whether they confirm our deepest beliefs or shake them, whether they prompt unanticipated wonder or give voice to some despair hidden even from ourselves, whether they induce exultation or inspire to blasphemy. We have such expectations even of collections of “non-religious” poems; it would be surprising if we didn’t entertain them when opening an anthology of poems dealing explicitly with faith and hope and doubt and the ultimate meaning of both life and death.
These are heavy expectations for any anthology. The difficulty is compounded by the very terms of the project. The word “religious” in the title—as opposed to, say, “spiritual”—alerts us to the fact that the contents will be capacious, non-denominational, and eclectic. But the adjective is a bit oozy too; it can mean pretty much whatever you want it to, and that’s reassuring. Who wants to be exposed to the Nicene Creed in couplets, or sonnets on the Siddur? What the title doesn’t give away, however, is that in fact something quite specific is intended. For American Religious Poems represents the elaboration by means of poetic proof-texts of Harold Bloom’s version of “the American Religion,” as detailed in his 1992 book of the same title; his anthology would have been more accurately (if oddly) entitled Poems of the American Religion. This is made clear in his introduction to the anthology—an excursus bizarre even by Bloomian standards—to which I will return.
The title isn’t the only misleading feature of the anthology. The book itself has been designed to resemble a pious tome. In this, the publishers, like their editors, have been “as wise as serpents,” though not, as it turns out, “as helpless as doves.” Bound in a creamy leather-like binding from which a satin page marker peeps demurely out, the volume resembles a hymnal or a prayer-book; it seems positively yearning for the haven of a pew. In fact, the leather surface is “a paper-based product protected by two acrylic coatings.” The contents represent a product of another sort; for, despite appearances, this is a breviary of “the god within.”
That Emersonian notion dominates the anthology. The first sixty or so pages cover The Bay Psalm Book of 1640, Roger Williams, and the wonderful Anne Bradstreet; there is an ample excerpt from Michael Wigglesworth’s fine and somber “The Day of Doom” and, best of all, thirteen pages devoted to that early American original Edward Taylor whose “Upon a Spider Catching a Fly” and “Upon a Wasp Child [chilled] with Cold” are among the great poems in the anthology. William Cullen Bryant is also well represented, not only by the majestic “Thanatopsis,” but by several lesser-known poems. On page 62, however, Ralph Waldo Emerson appears and the course of American poetry, if not the American character itself, undergoes a decisive change. Inwardness, allied with a gnomic decipherment of transcendence in the things of the world, supplants older, more hierarchical conceptions of reality. Two centuries before, Wigglesworth might have quavered before the God of Judgment and harangued “vain, frail, short liv’d, and miserable Man,” but Emerson will have none of this. The fierce and judgmental “god without” has given way to a milder, more laid-back, snugly indwelling god. Bloom (who edited Emerson’s poetry for The Library of America) accords him fifteen pages in the anthology—a generous allotment since the verse is pretty much doggerel—and he is right to do so; of course, it is all governed by that ineffably sententious tone which the Sage of Concord spent a lifetime perfecting. And yet, its influence has been immense. In his poem “Gnothi Seauton” [“Know Thyself”], Emerson declares, “God dwells in thee,” and then draws the inevitable corollary:
Who approves thee doing right?
God in thee
Who condemns thee doing wrong?
God in thee
Who punishes thine evil deed?
Thy worse mind, with error blind.
This goes beyond old-fashioned antinomianism; it’s a comfy private anarchy based on beaming self-regard; it’s “I’m okay, you’re okay” avant la lettre. The only wonder is that such drivel, which Emerson derived from his misreading—in good Bloomian fashion—of Persian poetry in bad translation, could inspire a poet of genius, for without Emerson, Leaves of Grass is scarcely conceivable.
It’s customary to quibble about poets included and excluded in such anthologies. As might be expected, Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Eliot, and Crane are well represented, and this is as it should be (though I’d have gone farther and included all of “Song of Myself”). There are some fine, and welcome, surprises as well. Conrad Aiken’s “Tetélestai” (the title is the Greek for Christ’s “It is finished”) is a marvellous elegy which echoes, while suavely reversing, some of the earlier Puritan poems in the book. It begins:
How shall we praise the magnificence of the dead,
The great man humbled, the haughty brought to dust?
Is there a horn we should not blow as proudly
For the meanest of us all, who creeps his days,
Guarding his heart from blows, to die obscurely?
William Everson’s “A Canticle to the Waterbirds” is another wonderful choice. Everson, who died in 1994 and was once known as “Brother Antoninus,” has been pretty much forgotten, but this poem at least is superb, combining Franciscan spirituality with Whitmanian exuberance. To the cormorants and kittiwakes, terns and pipers, grebes and egrets, he says:
Your ways are wild but earnest, your manners grave,
Your customs carefully schooled to the note of His serious mien.
You hold the prime condition of His clean creating,
And the swift compliance with which you serve His minor means
Speaks of the constancy with which you hold Him.
For what is your high flight forever going home to your first beginnings,
But such a testament to your devotion?
There are other restitutions as well as discoveries, including, among contemporary poets, Joseph Harrison’s exquisite “The Relic” and Khaled Mattawa’s moving “I Was Buried in Janzoor,” to mention but two. Even so, I can’t help wondering why so many excellent poets who have written memorably on religious themes should have been left out. It seems strange and unaccountable to find nothing by Donald Justice or Hyam Plutzik or Peter Kane Dufault or L. E. Sissman or Henri Coulette in these pages. Were they not Emersonian enough? Bloom declares that we live in “the Age of Ashbery” and then proceeds to insert eleven pages of Ashbery, nine of them in straight, and quite insipid, prose, not one of which has any bearing on religion. Worse is the perverse imbalance between certain poets. Robert Lowell is represented by a single poem while Henri Cole—a merely competent poet—is accorded almost as many pages as Emerson. What anthology of “American religious poems” could omit “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” or any number of the powerful and explicitly religious poems of the early Lowell and still be considered representative? To include his “Mr. Edwards and the Spider” would have shown a subtle link between the Catholic Lowell and the Puritan Edwards and would have complicated the anthology in an interesting manner. Or was early Lowell too Catholic, too fierily doctrinaire, to be squeezed into the bland Emersonian paradigm?
Bloom’s introduction to American Religious Poems makes his agenda quite clear. This eccentric, rambling essay recapitulates Bloom’s arguments in his aforementioned American Religion. For him, “American Religion” seems to be something akin to Hazel Motes’s “Church of Christ without Christ” in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, though without the attendant ferocity. It is a creedless creed. In his introduction, Bloom summarizes its nebulous tenets as “the god within; solitude; the best and oldest part of the self, which goes back before creation.” And yet again, as in The American Religion, he invokes Emerson’s notorious 1838 “Divinity School Address” as his proof-text. There, much to the outrage of his audience, Emerson succeeded in blurring the figure of Jesus so drastically that he becomes little more than a sort of ectoplasmic abstraction. In Emerson’s vulgar caricature, Jesus’s hard sayings and subtle parables are reduced to meretricious slogans reminiscent of advertising jingles or the mushy rant of New Age gurus (Emerson’s present-day avatars). Would the terse Jesus of the Gospels ever have uttered such banal and thick-tongued pronouncements as Emerson’s “Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think?” That would have been hard to get one’s tongue around even in Aramaic.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit that I was force-fed on Emerson from infancy and still cringe when I hear the odious phrase “self-reliance.” And yet, try as I may, I can’t quite suppress the Emersonian reflex. The Sage of Concord continues to buzz, like some unswattable mosquito, in the dimmer recesses of my mind where no bug-spray can reach. Hence I can appreciate Bloom’s insistence even as I resist it.
In The American Religion, Bloom declared “manifestly I am not myself a religious visionary or prophet.” Even so, one might be forgiven for suspecting that if Isaiah’s seraph were to pass by with a brazier of burning coals, Bloom wouldn’t hesitate to press his lips to the angelic tongs. However sober the data or extensive the field-work, in that book he seemed always on the verge of ascending in a nimbus of expostulation. Now, in his introduction to American Religious Poems, Bloom’s ascension has reached an apogee. His beloved Whitman, “our prime shaman,” supplies the unacknowledged aegis under which Bloom issues obiter dicta all the more astonishing for being as contradictory as they are incoherent. Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself” might be his motto. In Whitman this could result in the sublime. But with regard to Bloom, it can only be said that there is something at once sad and comical about contradictions delivered ex cathedra. Thus, in contrasting Gerard Manley Hopkins and Whitman, Bloom asserts that “a bond both homoerotic and rhythmic” connected them; at the same time, Whitman is the great exponent of “Onanistic” religion (his capitals). Nevertheless, the cadences of their verses have nothing in common, and the “homoeroticism”—at least in Hopkins’s case—remains somewhat sketchy. Bloom now ups the ante by asserting that “Our father the old man Walt Whitman was a greater poet than Father Hopkins, and of a religion beyond Hopkins’s understanding.” Was Whitman really the greater poet? And why is Hopkins suddenly “Father Hopkins?” Was what Bloom terms “the Whitmanian religion” truly too subtle for a classically trained Jesuit priest and poet of genius to grasp? What justifies the patronizing tone? No explanation is on offer: Bloom locutus, causa finita est.
One of Bloom’s most annoying traits as a literary critic has been his abiding assumption that whatever an author may think he has written, Bloom knows better; he has now extended this Besserwisserei to matters religious. You may consider yourself a Baptist or a Jew or a devotee of Dogon, but Bloom knows better; you are, unbeknownst to yourself, and inescapably, an adherent of “the American religion.” You think you belong to a congregation, but in truth you worship “the gnostic Jesus” in the recesses of your isolated self. Beyond catechisms and revival tents, you secretly revere “the god within,” a lonely faith. In this vein, he can even go so far as to state, again in his introduction, that “so implicit and universal is the American religion that some of its poets can be unaware that they incarnate and celebrate it.” Like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, who didn’t know he’d been speaking prose, such poets have been unwitting acolytes of an occult faith. This may account for Bloom’s omnium-gatherum approach in the anthology, in which most of the contemporary poets he includes display only the most tenuous relation to religious sentiments even by loose Emersonian standards. Bloom was friends with A. R. Ammons who “never once referred to God in our hundreds of conversations,” and yet, Ammons—like Emerson, an interesting minor poet—is represented by six “major poems” in these pages. (It probably didn’t hurt that one of the poems is dedicated to Harold Bloom, while another is entitled “For Harold Bloom.”) Perhaps some of the authors were surprised to be selected—but then, given the ravenous vanity of poets, I’m sure most would have leapt to be included even in an anthology of Zoroastrian dirges, if publication were on offer.
So disconnected is Bloom’s thought that his assertions veer, without warning, from one point to another, often in mid-sentence. Thus, of William James, another of his idols, he states, “William James, like his father and brother, had something to intimate about a possible life-after-death, but as a psychologist ventured no particular insights into homoeroticism.” Is “homoeroticism” somehow connected to the afterlife? Or again, denying Henry James’s shamanism—has anyone asserted it?—Bloom states, “Shamanistic spirituality has little to do with healing marriages.” Doesn’t it? Even among shamanistic societies? Bloom is the master of the apodictic non sequitur.
Even by Bloomian standards, his introduction overtops the measure. At one moment he informs us that “being a god is rather hard work.” I like the “rather” in that pronouncement. Or he can state with a straight face that “our native understanding of the Resurrection [is] as an escape from history, that is to say, from European time.” Such claptrap, bad theology as well as covert jingoism, doesn’t prevent him from indulging in fashionable swipes at George W. Bush, always good for getting applause, or from remarking, quite preposterously, “The criteria of Political Correctness I dismiss with weary contempt: what they have brought us is George W. Bush, belated monarch of a new Gilded Age.” George Bush, an advocate of political correctness? Is this Bloom’s oblique way of alluding to the president’s Yale education?
Bloom may dismiss “political correctness,” but he certainly observes it in his selections. His anthology is a festival of “diversity.” Inuit chants rub shoulders with spirituals, hymns from all denominations stand alongside poems by Muslims, Jews, Bahais, Swedenborgians, Sufis, and Christians of every persuasion; there are translations from Arabic and Yiddish, as well as Native American languages. It’s hard to see in fact who (apart from a few fine poets) has been left out. Jesse Zuba, the co-editor, has provided in addition all manner of reading aids, thematic guides and factual notes, as though to supply James’s “existential judgment” to Bloom’s zanier spiritual one. The effect is a little disconcerting. At times the sober Zuba resembles the “designated driver” who keeps trying to persuade his partying pal to hand over the car keys. To no avail, of course: the more circumspect his notes and “Reader’s Guide” appear, the wilder Bloom’s pontifications ring.
William James argued that the swarming array of human beliefs was a good and necessary thing, for “the divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions.” Though American Religious Poems leans perhaps too heavily in favor of James’s notion of “healthy-minded” religion—Poe, for example, is firmly excluded—even so, it does exhibit a rather amazing multiplicity of religious views, not all of which, happily, derive from Emerson. On the evidence of this rich, if somewhat skewed, anthology, the god within has had his day. He’s been dislodged by the pantheon within.
1American Religious Poems, edited by Harold Bloom; Library of America, 685 pages, $40.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 6, on page 20
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