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The best words in the best order?

OP Seminar 2020: A Dominican Approach to Poetry

by Sr Ann Catherine Swailes

Sr Ann Catherine preaching at the Dominican Seminar
Sr Ann Catherine


When Fr Martin asked if I would give this paper, I felt honoured, intrigued and excited – but also somewhat daunted. I’m – obviously – a Dominican, and, in one way or another, I’ve been approaching poetry for most of my life. But I was nonetheless hitherto unaware that there was such a thing as a Dominican approach to poetry as such.  I was tempted, initially, to model my approach on the story - sadly, probably apocryphal - of a certain 19th century Oxford undergraduate.  In those days, whatever one’s principal area of study, everyone reading for an Oxford degree was required to pass a short, and, truth to tell, not terribly taxing examination in divinity at the end of their first year.  It became generally known among the student body that, in the section on the Old Testament, examinees would be asked to name either the Kings of Israel, or the Major and the Minor prophets. 

 These two questions were asked alternately, so, by dint of enquiring of one’s immediate seniors in college, it was possible to predict infallibly which of the two lists one needed to memorise. Until, of course, the dons got wise to the ruse, and set the same question in two consecutive years, so that unsuspecting candidates, having got the kings off by heart, found to their horror on entering the Exam Schools, that they were being asked for the prophets instead. Our hero, it is said, was completely unfazed, and began his answer thus:  “in such an elevated matter as the communication of the divine will by prophecy, it seems invidious to make a distinction between major and minor. Let us turn, rather, to the Kings of Israel…”

In a somewhat similar way, I wondered about beginning this morning, “let us turn, rather to the Jesuits”. There are, of course, Dominican poets: the roll call begins at least as far back as St Thomas Aquinas, no less, who, as we’ll see, has an ambiguous but fascinating relationship to poetry, and continues up to the present. Many of us here, for instance, I am sure, are aware of and grateful for the poetry, as well as the ministry and the friendship, of Fr Paul Murray – who has greatly influenced much of what I want to say today.   But when all is said and done, from the martyr-poets in the 16th century, Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, to, above all, Gerard Manley Hopkins in the 19th, I think it is unquestionable, at least in the English-speaking context, that SJ has historically been a more poetically resonant set of post-nominals than OP.  It is perhaps not altogether surprising that this should be so: after all, however we define poetry – and that’s a point to which we’ll return -  I think most of us would instinctively accord the imagination a significant role in poetic composition, as, of course, it has a significant role in Ignatian spirituality, about which Dominicans have occasionally been known to come over somewhat sniffy. I remember being told while studying English literature at university – I’ve no idea if the theory is still fashionable, but I think it has something going for it – that not only Catholic but also Anglican religious poetry, in the generations immediately after the convulsions of the Reformation era, was influenced, in its intensely visual and conversational quality by the composition of place and colloquies of the Spiritual Exercises: that imaginative entering into gospel scenes in order to foster intimate companionship with Christ that is at the heart of  the vision of St Ignatius. Think, for instance, of George Herbert, describing the way in which Love – Christ -  bids him welcome, smilingly takes his hand and invites him to sit and eat.  But I’m going to resist the temptation to talk (very much) more about the Jesuits, or indeed the Carmelites, who in St John of the Cross, gave the Spanish language one of its greatest poets, or the Benedictines, who, according to an intriguing if somewhat contentious typology of charisms devised by St John Henry Newman, represent the poetic, as opposed to the scientific and the practical genius in the history of the Church (these being respectively us and the Js, interestingly enough). 

However, this does feel like cheating – and not having the hutzpah of that anonymous Victorian undergraduate, - I’m going to concede defeat and stick somewhat more explicitly – I almost said, prosaically -  to the brief I was given, by trying to say something about the relationship between poetry and preaching, and therefore between poetry and the Order of Preachers. . There are a few questions I have at the back of my mind here: can poetry be of any use in preparing for preaching? Can poetry actually be used in preaching? Can poetry, under certain circumstances, even perhaps be preaching?  These are questions which I’d like to address towards the end of the talk, and I’d be delighted to return to them in discussion, either at the end of this session or informally later.

Now, I don’t think I have to issue any kind of spoiler alert before telling you that my personal answer to all three of these questions is positive: there’d be little point in this paper otherwise.  I do think poetry can inform, resource and even constitute preaching.  But – with good scholastic precedent, of course – I’m going to approach the issue in a somewhat oblique way, by beginning with two potential objections to the idea that poetry and preaching, at any rate Dominican preaching, belong together. And, again with good scholastic precedent, I hope to show that these objections might in themselves help actually to build my case, might serve both to clarify and to enrich our thinking about the connection between poetry and preaching.

Before we even get to those objections, however, there’s just one further preliminary we need to address. So far, I’ve been proceeding as though we know, unequivocally, what both poetry and preaching are. For the purposes of this paper, I’m going to assume it’s fairly uncontroversial to think of preaching as proclamation of the truth and the love of God.

Defining poetry, however, turns out to be an altogether more exacting matter.  One of the best known definitions of poetry, and one that is worth taking seriously because it is itself the formulation of a great poet, is that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who claimed that, while prose is “words in the best order”, poetry is “the best words in the best order”. Of course that statement raises at least as much of a question as it answers: “the best words for what? The best order in what sense?”. I like it as a starting point, though, because it draws our attention to at least one slightly paradoxical thing that any definition of poetry needs to take into account: it’s not always easy to draw a hard and fast distinction between poetry and prose.  Relatedly, we sometimes use the word “poetry” to mean a particular kind of text, a particular kind of written work of art, which we can distinguish from representatives of other literary genres, so that – for instance – Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is poetry because it’s a poem, while The Mayor of Casterbridge is a prose work of fiction, a novel. If we found excerpts from Thomas Hardy’s novel in an anthology of poetry, we would feel understandably disoriented and confused.  And yet we also mean something, I think, when we talk about poetic language within prose works, or of prose having a poetic quality – and, indeed, we might very well want to accord that description to these words, for instance, from The Mayor of Casterbridge, where, lamenting the death of the much put-upon Mrs Henchard, Mother Cuxsom comments:

“And all her shining keys will be took from her, and her cupboards opened; and little things a’ didn’t wish seen, anybody will see; and her wishes and ways will all be as nothing!”

So what makes language poetic, and what makes a poem a poem? Perhaps we could agree that poetic language is characterised by a kind of affective, and imaginative power; it paints pictures with words and thereby evokes an emotional response in the reader or listener (which is why, of course, it would in some contexts be derogatory to describe writing as “prosaic”, since it implies a lack of such emotional engagement). A principal way in which this word-painting happens, though not the only one, is through the use of poetic imagery in which one reality is described in terms of another: we probably all remember much of this from school: the simile where the comparison is made explicit: my love is like a red, red rose; the metaphor where it is left to the imagination, and yet, paradoxically the identification between the subject described and the words doing the describing is that much more robust and sometimes damning, as in the famous description of other ranks and officers in the First World War : lions led by donkeys. So much for poetic language. Meanwhile, a poem, per se, is constructed of such highly charged language, but, in addition, I suggest, arrangements of words have to have a certain aural quality in order for poetry in this sense to be diagnosed: we probably all also remember being told in school that, no, a poem doesn’t have to rhyme, and there are of course whole poetic cultures of which that is true, including, as it happens, the oldest English poetry.  But there does, I think, have to be some kind of regular structure to the sounds of the words in a poem. This may include rhyme, or it may be based solely on the “beat” of the text: a repeated, steady rhythm formed of stressed and unstressed syllables. It may be enriched by alliteration – words beginning with the same or similar sounds – or onomatopoeia – the sound of words mimicking their meaning. A poem can have all of these characteristics, as, for instance, the opening of Wilfrid Owen’s great First World War sonnet, the Anthem for Doomed Youth:

What passing bells for those who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons

But I think it has to have at least one of them. That’s not to say, incidentally, that such regularity cannot be interrupted, in order to make a particular effect, just as dissonance or a change of rhythm can have its place in music. And I think we have to remember that this kind of aural quality is, as the philosophers say, necessary but not sufficient as a characterisation of poetry. Think of this statement:

If while you bank with us, your bank account

Is empty, with no money coming in;

And you have not arranged an overdraft,

We’ll charge you int’rest at a higher rate.

That – I think -  is a fairly flawless example of what is technically known as blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters, to put it still more technically): it has, in other words, the same regular rhythmic structure as Milton’s Paradise Lost and most of the soliloquies of Shakespeare. None of that makes it poetry.

So perhaps we could adopt something like this as a working definition of poetry: words partaking of the quality simultaneously of painting and music.  In the rest of this paper, most, though not quite all, of the texts I’ll be quoting are poems properly so called. But much of what I want to say about poetry as, so to speak, the handmaid of preaching could, I think, apply equally to poetry in the more extended sense, to what I’ve been calling poetic language. So, I suppose one of the things I am wanting to do today is to encourage us all, as practitioners of preaching, to dare to be poetic, to paint pictures and to sing with words, whether or not we ever write “poems”.

But first, I promised some objections to the notion of poetry as a proper thing for Dominicans to get involved with.

Objection 1: Poetry isn’t Dominican, it’s Franciscan.

We were thinking just now in passing about the Jesuit contribution to poetry, and even more briefly about that of the Carmelites and Benedictines, but yet another contender for the title of top poetic Order is sometimes suggested, and once again it isn’t us: this time it’s the Franciscans. This is not so much because there are lots of Franciscan poets in the strict sense of people who write poems – although of course St Francis himself sang lyrically of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Jacopone da Todi, the (probable) author of the Stabat Mater was a Franciscan, and, in modern English verse there is the intriguing figure of the Franciscan tertiary John Bradburne. On the whole, though, I think it’s fair to say that the Minorites’ contribution to poetry has been, well, relatively minor. But it is sometimes held that there is a distinctively Franciscan way of looking at the world, which has characteristics conventionally regarded as poetic, contrasted specifically with a Dominican sensibility which, therefore, by definition, does not.  Here,  I’m taking as my conversation partner here the distinguished American philosopher of religion, Eleanore Stump, though I think it is only just at the outset to say that the argument I’m making is evoked by, rather than constituting a direct response to hers, with many aspects of which, in any case, I agree.

  In 2010, Stump published a book entitled “Wandering in Darkness”, a massive and suggestive contribution to the literature on belief in God in the face of human suffering, wanting to make the case – with which I have a lot of sympathy, but this would be another paper for another day – for using the resources of story-telling alongside those of more abstract philosophical analysis in this context. Her argument rests on the contention that there is a kind of knowledge that can be obtained only from experience, and which cannot be articulated without remainder in logically watertight propositions, but which can be gestured to and evoked when we use language in other ways. As she points out, someone born blind might become an expert in the science of colour perception, for example, but that does not mean that she knows what it is to see red: that would only happen for her if through the marvels of modern science she was enabled to see, and then all her sophisticated theoretical knowledge would be of no avail in her attempts to describe her new-found experience.  In a roughly similar way,  all the well-intentioned and maybe even logically unimpeachable attempts  to explain how it can be the case that the existence of suffering and evil in the world is compatible with the existence of God fail to satisfy us completely because they do not engage us in that experiential, emotion-laden way.  Stump proposes that use be made of the stories of growth through affliction to be found in scripture in order to complement the more abstract approaches that have classically formed the core of theological approaches to the mystery of suffering.

Although Stump’s concern is specifically with narrative, and the use to which it can be put in theology, especially the theology of suffering, it seems to me that what she says is equally, or perhaps even more true of poetry: I’m reminded of an off the cuff definition of poetry made recently by one of my colleagues, which I rather like:  “words saying more than words can say”. I’m also reminded of a remarkable essay by our own Fr Paul Murray, describing how both writing and reading poetry can shift our perspective, especially when we are suffering, a point to which I’d like to return at the end of this paper. I don’t, then, in any sense doubt either that there is something distinctive about the way in which poetry communicates meaning, or that it has a unique kind of expressive potential that can be therapeutic, even salvific.  Poetry does indeed say more in words than words can say, and what it says, can be revelatory, cathartic, healing, and quite invaluable, therefore, to the preacher of God’s truth and love. I think there is another reason why it is worth stressing this genuinely distinctive character of poetic writing, too. I suspect that many people are put off poetry in school, oddly enough, because it is never really explained what it means to say that poetry means more than words can (otherwise) say, and consequently, students are left struggling with the impression that it is simply prose written in a foreign language, a code to which they do not have the key: that if only they were smart enough, or educated or sophisticated enough, they’d “get it”. And, in consequence, I think, we might be needlessly resistant to the idea that we can use poetry in preaching: because of its somewhat elitist reputation, we are understandably reluctant to believe that it can be employed to proclaim the truth and love of God in whose image we are all made, however well, or badly, we did at Eng Lit.  So I think, for a variety of reasons, it is important to acknowledge that there is something different about poetry and poetic language, and perhaps even that there is something that can be called poetic knowledge.

Where I take issue with Eleanore Stump’s own language usage is, first, in the titles she gives the two forms of knowledge she identifies, calling them respectively the Dominican and the Franciscan, and, secondly, the way she seems to envisage the difference – and consequently the relationship -  between them. In fact, I think there’s a direct connection between these two problems with her approach, and reflecting on this may help us to understand a little more about why, in fact, there could scarcely be a more Dominican activity than poetry.

Stump draws her terminology here, quite unashamedly, from her reading of the lives of the founders of the two Orders, and, this would probably strike many outside these four walls as an obvious thing to do.  Surely there is no more “poetic” figure in all of Church history than St Francis of Assisi, for instance: indeed he has sometimes been referred to as “God’s troubadour”.  Meanwhile, historically, when the Dominican Order hasn’t been a byword in the popular imagination for inquisitorial brutality, it has sometimes been taken as a cipher for an abstract intellectualism in at least some degree of tension with any way of seeing the world that we might instinctively describe as poetic, and presumably St Dominic himself, at the fountainhead of our Charism, must be said to bear some measure of responsibility for that.  But perhaps we need to ask whether all this is only obvious to non-Dominicans.

The stories that survive from Dominic’s life by no means all fit the image of the austerely cerebral figure that Stump sketches - in fact I’m not sure that any of them quite do, unless they’re read through a rather distorting lens which has already decided that Dominicans are, and have been ab initio drily rationalistic, whereas Franciscans, in fidelity to their founding charism, have always been the emotionally literate romantic visionaries.

In fact, of course, Dominic’s life is lacking neither in dramatic incident, nor in human sympathy; Stump tends to write both out of her script. I’m not sure on what grounds, for instance, she thinks she knows what kind of debate Dominic had with the Albigensian innkeeper on that fateful night in Toulouse: she simply assumes that, in both form and content, it must have resembled a later scholastic disputation about abstruse theological technicalities, and therefore counts as evidence that Dominic was not interested in the human backstory of his interlocutor: there seem to me to be at least two false moves in this line of argument: we don’t, in fact, know anything about what either party said, and, in any case, there is no reason to assume that interest in academic theology is incompatible with deep pastoral concern.    And the legend in which an orthodox doctrinal statement authored by Dominic is submitted to the flames along with a Cathar one and leaps out unharmed, is surely less about the all-sufficiency of rational argumentation in the Dominican tradition, as Stump would have it, than about the limits of its usefulness: if Dominic had been able intellectually to convince his interlocutors of the truth of his position, after all, he would have felt no need to appeal directly to divine judgement and submit the manuscripts to the ordeal by fire. Stump makes no mention of the young Dominic’s passionate refusal to study dead skins while live ones were starving, no reference to the dream-like vision of globes of light hovering behind the parish church in Fanjeaux, or to  Dominic’s love of music (and, as Fr Matthew reminded us,  of the Ave Maris Stella, in particular, surely one of the most lyrically lovely of Marian hymns), no acknowledgement of the tenderness of his dealings with the brethren or the young women converts from Catharism, who, according to legend formed the nucleus of the Holy Preaching of Prouilhe, or his injunction to the nuns not to take merely a self-consciously conventual sip of wine but to “drink deeply”.   I imagine I speak for many of us when I say I simply don’t recognise Stump’s Dominic as my holy father.




And what are we to say of Dominic’s children, of the passionate chastity of Jordan of Saxony for instance, expressed in that frustratingly one-sided correspondence with Diana D’Andalo (what wouldn’t we give to be able to read her replies?)  What, a century or so later, are we to make of the Rhineland Mystics, who not only wrote often in highly coloured and emotional language, but, in the case of Meister Eckhart at least, explicitly defended the use of fables and poems in preaching ? For that matter, what about St Catherine of Siena? Are we seriously being asked to maintain that her rapturous evocations of blood and sweetness, and the ocean of divine peace and God madly in love with his rational creature are somehow inauthentically Dominican?  All in all, it seems rather difficult to sustain the vision of Francis and Dominic as respectively the sources of an extravagantly poetic and a reductively rationalist sensibility. Things certainly went very badly wrong for Dominic very quickly if that was the character he intended to bequeath his family.

What’s more, I think we might even go so far as to say that where the Order has been tempted to take one side of this distinction and developed it to the exclusion of the other, we have been less than true to the legacy Dominic left us, and certainly less than true to the theological rationale behind that legacy. Image-making and story-telling, along with the emotional responses they evoke,  are as much part of the human psyche, and therefore part of the human person that is created good and very good in the image of the good God, as is pattern-processing rationality. If Dominic founded the Order to combat the dualistic doctrine at the heart of Catharism, that some aspects of creation, and thus of the human person, are the offspring of a lesser god, I think this potential dualism, too, needs to be sent packing. This is why, incidentally, there is something profoundly un-Dominican about saying, as one does occasionally hear said, that it is un-Dominican to pray like a Jesuit. More immediately relevant to our purposes, though, it should surely lead us to expect, rather than to suspect, OP and OP-inspired poets.

But I think this evident false dichotomy on the historical level -  Dominic simply was more “Franciscan” than Stump allows for, and there is nothing wrong or surprising therefore, in his children being so too, as we frequently have been– gestures towards a deeper one. It is not merely that people are a complex mix of “Dominican” and “Franciscan” tendencies, as that the distinction between so-called Dominican and Franciscan knowledge, real as it is, is founded in their deeper unity. And this, I think, may turn out to have profound significance for a Dominican approach to poetry.

Rational, propositional knowledge can make an affective impact on us as surely as can our more obviously emotionally loaded experiences: there can be such a thing, for instance, as an argument which is pleasing, which engages our emotions as well as our intellect, not because we happen to agree with it, but simply because of its elegance. Those more mathematically literate than I am (which wouldn’t be hard!) tell me the same can be true of equations. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to imagine Eleanore Stump’s fictional blind scientist being awed and moved by what she knows intellectually about the nature of sight; her gaining sight for herself might deepen and expand and nuance that response, but it wouldn’t necessarily be altogether different in kind.  We can perhaps see an analogy to this in our reaction to music – in one sense, there is nothing more “rational” than the rules governing Renaissance polyphony or Baroque counterpoint, but it would be odd to say that the music of Tallis or Bach is simply the arrangement of sound in rational sequences: Spem in Alium or the Goldberg Variations are simultaneously “Dominican” and “Franciscan”, if you like, and so are our responses to them – and something similar could surely be said about poetic form itself. And this is precisely what we should expect, if we regard human intellectual and artistic creativity as a reflection of that of the God in whose image we are made, the utterly simple God, to put it in the terms of scholastic theology who is identical with his beauty and goodness as well as with his truth.

All of this might come as news to many of our contemporaries, who are used not merely to distinguishing but to dividing Franciscan and Dominican knowledge, in Stump’s sense of the two terms, and assigning poetry, along with the other arts, categorically to the OFM side of the line rather than the OP. Such a sundering of thought and feeling, rationality and emotion, might perhaps draw some credibility from the stereotype of the wild-eyed romantic poet of popular mythology – think, for instance, of Coleridge composing Kubla Khan with the aid of performance-enhancing substances – though it’s far too often forgotten that Coleridge was himself no mean theoretician of poetry, and indeed not mean theologian. But it makes rather less sense when we think about older poets, and older poetry.

Think, for example, again, of George Herbert, who, in his poem “the Agony” gives us a disturbingly vivid depiction of Christ’s subjective experience in Gethsemane “a man so wrung with pains that all his hair/his skin, his garments bloody be/Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain/to hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein” before concluding with the intriguing couplet: “love is that liquor sweet, and most divine/which my God feels as blood, but I, as wine”. Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the question of whether Herbert is here advocating or denying a doctrine of the Real Presence:  versions of both would have been options available to him in the Anglicanism of his day, and I think his words could bear either interpretation. But what is surely clear is that this haunting statement is intended to engage both intellect and emotion, and that it succeeds in doing so: the very fact that we can debate Herbert’s Eucharistic theology on the basis of his poetry is surely a sign that he is being simultaneously Dominican and Franciscan in Stump’s terms, but, I venture to suggest, really, just Dominican: refusing to countenance a disjunction between heart and mind.

Or think of an even older text than Herbert’s, the great, and deeply mysterious 14th century poem, William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Typical of Medieval narrative poetry, Piers Plowman makes use of the phenomenon of dreams to advance his story, leading his protagonist, the significantly named Will, on a book-length quest to learn “how to save his soul”.

Waking episodes set in recognisably mundane locations – a riverside in rural Worcestershire, a parish church in London – alternate, and sometimes coincide with and inform, the poem’s 8 dreams, bringing Will into contact with a bewildering variety of characters.  Thus, on his departure from the “Fair Field Full of Folk”, a vividly realist panorama of contemporary English life framed by a tower and a dungeon representing the habitation of Truth and Wrong respectively, he meets not only allegorical personifications of virtues, vices, psychological faculties and a range of abstract concepts, and representatives of every social class of late 14th century England, but also scriptural and other historical figures, including the Emperor Trajan with whom he debates the salvation of non-Christians. It is all perplexing, fascinating and sometimes deeply moving.

Unfortunately, we do not have time to explore any of that today. But I do want to draw our attention to just one point in this vast text. Near the end of Langland’s poem, the narrator falls asleep on Palm Sunday, and the liturgical music of his parish church permeates his dream as he finds himself an observer of the events of the first Holy Week. This culminates in  his descent to the realm of the dead, where  a bright light shines and a commanding voice summons the patriarchs and prophets to life, as the iron bars of hell shatter; where four beautiful maidens called mercy, peace, justice and truth dance in a ring as on an Medieval village green accompanied by a carol which compares the Lord’s victory over death to the sunshine after showers of a  typical English April; where thousands and thousands of angels join in singing a hymn to the conquering flesh of Christ. It is a quite extraordinary evocation of paschal celebration in which the cosmic and the every-day coincide with heart-stopping loveliness. It completely gives the lie to the notion that the Middle Ages were fixated on Good Friday to the exclusion of Easter, and I can’t recommend too highly that you all go away and read it. But I want to focus on just one tiny moment in this account, which is, in fact, a Good Friday moment, the very moment of the death of Christ. And I want to do so because, like Herbert’s reference to the sweet divine liquor of God’s love, this is simultaneously doctrinally precise, and, I think, in its own quiet way, emotionally quite overwhelming. Dominican and Franciscan, if you like; really, I think, just Dominican, inviting us both to think and feel the wonder of the paradox at the heart of our faith: the death of the immortal One.

`Consummatum est,' quoth Christ · and began for to swoon
Piteously and pale · as a prisoner that dieth;
The lord of life and of light · then layed his eyes together.

I’m not sure more can, or need, be said, about the power of poetry to preach.

Objection 2: Poetry is deficient in truth

 But, of course, I’m going to say more. The second objection is, so to speak, home-grown, from a Dominican source, and it is, at least superficially, a particularly weighty one: St Thomas Aquinas’ quite alarming-sounding statement that poetry is “deficient in truth”. 

Now, of course,  we could simply dismiss this out of hand, however far this might take some of us outside our comfort zone: as a non-Dominican priest friend teased me, when I admitted to wrestling with this material in the course of preparing for today, “maybe Aquinas was just wrong about something for once?” Well, I suppose it’s possible: I presume most of us in this room believe in the Immaculate Conception, after all.   But, while a fundamentalist attitude to the writings of the Angelic Doctor may not be incumbent on Dominicans, a humble predisposition to take our brother Thomas seriously most certainly is. So it’s worth reflecting quite deeply on what he could possibly have meant by these remarks, and this is a troubling process.  We agreed at the outset, after all, that our working definition of preaching would be that it is the proclamation of the truth and love of God. If it turns out, then, that poetry has little to do with truth, it would seem that it is something from which Dominicans, members of the Order of Preachers which is also the Order of Truth, should distance themselves.

Thomas himself, of course, provides a kind of living sed contra to this position: that is to say, it’s hard to see his own life and work as evidence for the non-truthful, and thus non-Dominican, nature of poetry.  He was after all a poet of no mean stature, and, indeed, I think he is a particularly fine example of just that interrelation of so-called “Dominican” and “Franciscan” emphases that I have been arguing is both intrinsic to at least much poetry, especially pre-modern poetry, and in itself characteristically Dominican, in that it witnesses both to the unity and to the common goodness of the experiential and the rational, the emotional and the cerebral, the image and the proposition, on the underlying presupposition of the radical goodness of all creation.  Think of the liturgical poetry Thomas provides for the feast of Corpus Christi, where doctrinal exactitude alternates stroboscopically with richly evocative scriptural imagery. Or think of the Adoro Te Devote (or “Godhead here in hiding” in that wonderful example of Jesuit-Dominican poetic collaboration which is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ translation of Thomas’s poem), now once again overwhelmingly regarded by scholars as an authentic work of Aquinas. Here, it seems, we are privileged to eves drop on Thomas’s personal Eucharistic piety, since the work appears to have been composed as a post-communion devotion for his own use. And we see Thomas providing himself with both a lightning sketch of the doctrine of revelation – “What God’s Son has told me/take for truth I do/truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true…” – and with nourishing and evocative images for his prayer: the living bread, the pelican wounding her own breast in order to feed her chicks, that resonant coincidence between the names of the doubting apostle and the believing theologian: I am not like Thomas/wounds I cannot see…

So I think we can assume that Thomas’s contention that poetry is deficient in truth should not be taken at its rather negative face value, as implying that poetry is of no use to the preacher of truth. Thomas himself uses it both to clarify questions of doctrine and to incite our love.  But, in that case, what are we to make of his claim? And can it in any way help to deepen our understanding of the value of poetry to the preacher? Maybe counter-intuitively, I think it can.

In the ST, Thomas makes this claim, rather in passing it should be said, as part of a larger, and intriguing question about the use of symbolism specifically in liturgical contexts. He is thinking here about the status of the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law, the regulations governing the way in which the Old Testament People of God worshipped the Lord.  Of course, for Thomas and his contemporaries, the worship of the Old Covenant was nothing if not a prefiguration of that of the New, and indeed nowhere is this conviction more concisely expressed thanin Aquinas’ own great contribution to Christian liturgy in his texts for Corpus Christi: But it is just this that his -  rather puritanical sounding -  objector finds problematic. Thomas has him suggest that the Old Testament ritual and sacrificial system, all the various types and shadows which have their ending in the newer rite established in the course of the first Holy Week by the Passion, death and resurrection of the Lord – is effectively a kind of deception, unworthy of the God of truth. If the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb points forward to Calvary and thence to the Mass, for instance, doesn’t that reduce the Temple liturgy to the status of mere theatre, in which the participants are, by definition, play-acting, pretending to be something and someone they are not?

The objector does not explicitly concern himself with language use: he is talking primarily not about what was said in the course of Old Testament worship, but what was done in that setting. But in his response, defending the use of symbolic prefiguration in Old Testament worship, Thomas makes a rather mysterious reference to “poetic expressions”:

Just as human reason fails to grasp poetical expressions on account of their being lacking in truth, so does it fail to grasp Divine things perfectly, on account of the sublimity of the truth they contain: and therefore in both cases there is need of signs by means of sensible figures.

So there is something about “poetic expressions” which make them inaccessible to human reason, which Thomas describes here as a deficiency of truth, but the same inaccessibility to human reason can be attributed to the God who, far from being deficient in truth, is truth itself. And this is mysterious.  It is clear enough, perhaps, that Aquinas thinks the types and shadows of the Old Testament rites are a necessary stage in the education of God’s people, pointing in concrete, at least partially graspable terms, towards the God beyond comprehension. God is not, clearly, for Thomas, irrational; he is, if you like, supra-rational, simply too full of truth for us to understand, so we need all the help we can get.    But what about these poetic expressions? Can they be in any sense a help rather than a hindrance to us as we seek to know God as fully as he can be known by creatures? Or do we have to face the disturbingly inconsistent notion of Thomas the poet forbidding poetry?

I think some light is shed on this if we read this admittedly dense and obscure statement in the light of Thomas’s consideration, earlier in the ST, of the kind of language it is appropriate to use of God, specifically, the question of whether it is appropriate to use the language of metaphor and allusion.

Thomas thinks, unquestioningly, that it is, and for some rather interesting reasons, but it’s worth noting in passing the first objection he raises to his own position, which is that, since sacred doctrine is the highest of the sciences, it is unfitting for it to share a mode of expression with “poetry, the least of all the sciences”. In other words, poetry for Aquinas, does partake of the character of true knowledge, even if it occupies a subordinate position vis a vis philosophy and supremely theology itself; once again, no hint of a dichotomy between the intellectual and the emotional with poetry being assigned exclusively to the latter category. Thomas answers this objection by asserting that the uses to which poetry and sacred doctrine put metaphorical language are simply different: poetry uses imagery in order to evoke delight, Aquinas claims; whereas for theology it is a matter of a rather utilitarian necessity: it simply cannot get by without it. Here, I think, one might legitimately take issue with him and suggest that the distinction is perhaps less hard and fast than he allows. Is it not, in fact, possible – even desirable -  that the theological use of imagery will bring delight? (And, indeed, can poetry get by without it?)

Nevertheless, the reasons Thomas gives for the necessity of metaphor to theology, are, I think, really friendly to the idea of poetry as an important tool for the preaching of God’s truth. 

One of the more provocative of Thomas’s suggestions about the use of metaphor in talking about God is his claim that, while sacred doctrine cannot but employ metaphorical language, it is particularly appropriate that the images used to name God be drawn from “less noble” sources: Aquinas does not, disappointingly, give examples, but presumably, he is thinking of  the way in which the Bible quite unashamedly uses not merely human, but animal (and indeed vegetable and even mineral) analogies for the divine. The rationale for this preference, for Thomas, centres above all, on the safeguard it provides against idolatry: if one used imagery drawn from more “noble” quarters, it would be that much easier to mistake the image for the reality, and therefore worship a creature in place of the ultimately unknowable creator. In this way the “deficiency in truth” of poetic language, paradoxically enough, actually makes for its accuracy: there is a sense in which the very obviousness of the difference between – say – a rock, or a lion or a vine, on the one hand, and God on the other, draws attention to the fact that whatever we say about God we will inevitably fall short of the reality; as Thomas puts it,

 it is clear that these things are not literal descriptions of divine truths, which might have been open to doubt had they been expressed under the figure of nobler bodies, especially for those who could think of nothing nobler than bodies. This is  more befitting the knowledge of God that we have in this life. For what He is not is clearer to us than what He is. Therefore similitudes drawn from things farthest away from God form within us a truer estimate that God is above whatsoever we may say or think of Him.

In the light of all this, it strikes me that Thomas might especially have approved of Julian of Norwich. Julian, writing about a hundred years or so after Aquinas’ death and,, so far as we know, exclusively in prose, certainly knew how to use poetic language, in ways that are frequently, and sometimes shockingly, down to earth in her evocations of the Lord’s Passion.  Not only do the drops of blood from the wounds inflicted by the crown of thorns remind her of the scales of the herring prevalent in the contemporary East Anglian diet in their roundness, and of torrential rain in their profusion, but, at least on one interpretation of her Middle English text, the Incarnation itself is likened to the progress of food through the human digestive tract: God coming down to the point of our “lowest need” pictured as his participation in the most viscerally basic of bodily functions: a “less noble” image, one might imagine, if ever there was one, for the descent of the Word for us and for our salvation. But there is another way in which poetic language can stave off idolatry particularly effectively, and, though Thomas does not mention this explicitly, perhaps we can imagine him approving of this also.

One influential response in the history of Christian theology and spirituality to the ultimate unknowability of God – what he is not is clearer to us than what he is, in Aquinas’ formulation – is to stress the divine hiddenness by imposing a near-moratorium on images of God: on this understanding, since whatever we say about God will be inadequate to the reality, the less we say the better. But another approach is quite deliberately to set image against image, allowing them to contrast, and sometimes indeed to clash: since,  whatever we say about God will not be adequate to the reality, the more we say the better, the less inadequate, even where the images appear to cancel each other out. This is in fact the attitude that Julian herself adopts, but it is also the approach of much religious poetry. One superlative example would be George Herbert’s sonnet, Prayer, in which a veritable cornucopia of images for the relationship between God and his praying child are evoked: prayer is, among other awe-inspiring things, an exotic country, fear-inducing music, a distant constellation, and – “God’s breath in man returning to his birth”. On one level, of course, some of these images do seem contradictory – suggesting at once an intimacy and a distance between us and God. And yet, of course, God is both the transcendent creator, and nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Again, there is a tension here that can better be held by poetry than by prose, precisely because poetic language does not lay claim to precision: it is, in Aquinas’ words, its deficiency in truth that enables it to point to the great truth, that truth lies forever beyond the reach of our words.

Poetry and Preaching

I hope, then, that I have come some way towards convincing anyone who needed convincing that there is no reason for Dominicans to worry about poetry. We need not be concerned that it will engulf the intellectual clarity which the Order has traditionally prized in an un-Dominican haze of emotion, first because there is in fact nothing un-Dominican about emotion, but also because poetry is not about emotion to the exclusion of rationality, but a matter rather, we might say, of rationality enriched by emotion. And we need not be anxious that the imprecision and even inadequacy of poetic language is some kind of insult to the God of truth, since among the deepest truths about God is that we can only ever gesture towards him and stammer an approximation to his name; we cannot ever describe him exhaustively, and this is a truth to which the ambiguity of poetry bears witness.    But in conclusion, I would like to go a little further, and suggest that not only is a love of poetry perfectly compatible with the Dominican vocation, but that poetry is a potentially a profoundly valuable tool for our common, but kaleidoscopically various mission to proclaim the truth and love of God. To return to the three questions I sketched in the introduction, then, how, concretely, can poetry prepare us to preach, how can it inform our preaching, and how can it even be our preaching?

The most basic sense, it seems to me, in which poetry prepares the way for preaching is, in fact, such an all-pervasive feature of Dominican life that it is easy to overlook: in this sense we all do use poetry in our preparation for preaching, whether we realise it or not.   Our preaching, as we will have all been made aware from our earliest days in the Order, is, of course rooted in and nourished by our prayer: it is the fruits of our contemplation, after all, that we are to pass on to others. And our common prayer, the prayer of the Church, is made up, in large measure, precisely of poetry: the liturgical poetry of the psalms. If we pray the divine office faithfully, we will inevitably be formed by its poetry and our response to it, and it is out of this that, most fundamentally, we will preach.

But in addition, I think poetry can be a valuable preliminary to our preaching in at least two other ways. The first is that, quite straightforwardly, reading and reflecting on poetry can ignite a fresh sense of wonder: wonder, first of all, at the power and the beauty of human language itself: this miraculous faculty whereby marks made with ink on paper, and sounds made with our mouths and vocal cords enables that which is in my heart and mind  to reach yours; this faculty which we take for granted as we use it in all the myriad mundane transactions of our professional and personal lives, and which we abuse every time we lie, or do violence to each other in words of anger and contempt. This faculty, too, which is distorted by the tyranny of the verbal of which we have heard so much during this weekend; perhaps, then, part of the function of poetry is, precisely the redemption of our words from such misuse. But, then, because human language, can, in the hands of the poet, give us nothing less than a new vision of the world, reading poetry can tap deep springs of gratitude and praise, not only for the creative insight and skilled craftsmanship of the poet, but for creation itself newly seen through the poet’s eyes. Of course, many religiously committed poets explicitly write of the creation as revelatory, sacramental, if you will, of the creator, setting forth the simple grandeur of God – once again Fr Hopkins, SJ, springs to mind as a superlative example – as reflected in the lovely things he has made. But poetry which is not written from quite such evident religious motives can have a similar effect: much of the nature poetry of the 18th century Northamptonshire farm labourer John Clare, for example, or the surreal yet simultaneously utterly relatable evocation of childhood in Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill. Immersion in poetry like this is not, I suggest, simply recreation for the preacher – though doubtless it can have that valuable function too. Rather, it is inspiration for the preacher’s task, enabling us, through our contemplation of what poet Louis MacNeice calls “the drunkenness of things being various” to glimpse the stillness and simplicity of God, and encouraging us thereby to draw others to join us in our worship.

A final way, though, in which I think poetry can prepare us for preaching is perhaps a little more surprising.  This is the kind of  backhanded compliment paid to Christian faith by poets who do not share it. I’m thinking again, as I always do especially at this time of year, of Thomas Hardy, alluding to the west country legend that animals in stables kneel down at midnight on Christmas Eve in honour of the Nativity, and concluding that, given half a chance he would creep to the barnyard door to take a look, “hoping it might be so”; of the same Thomas Hardy sensing that, in his “full throated” singing,  on a chillingly bleak New Year’s Eve in 1899 the “darkling thrush” he observes among the skeletal winter trees bears witness to “some blessed hope of which he knew and I was unaware”. I’m thinking of Hardy’s contemporary Matthew Arnold, on Dover Beach, watching as the lights fail on the French shore opposite him, and mourning the “melancholy long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith, leaving him in a world deprived of certitude or peace or hope for pain where ignorant armies clash by night. I’m thinking, too, of a remarkable poem by our contemporary, Carol Ann Duffy, entitled prayer, which opens “some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer/utters itself” and in which the most mundane of sounds are re-heard as echoes of a lost and regretted sense of relationship with God: the “distant Latin chanting of a train, Grade 1 piano scales, and finally the oddly mysterious invocations of the Radio 4 shipping forecast:  .

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

All these are the voices of those who find themselves unable to identify with the Christian faith, but who, sometimes despite themselves, seem, achingly, to long for it: “the children at the gate who will not go away and cannot pray” in the heart-breaking phrase from T S Eliot’s Ash Wednesday; surely their wistfulness should provide us, above all, with a spur to preach, to proclaim the truth and love of God to those who show us, in turn, so much of the sometimes hitherto unexpected beauty of his creation.

So much, then, for poetry as a preparation for preaching. What then of using poetry in preaching? I’m not necessarily thinking here of learned sermons laced with citations from our greater English poets; carefully handled, doubtless this can be effective, but it can also be clumsy, artificial and not a little pretentious.  And nor am I particularly thinking of using poetic language, as we have been considering it this morning,  in the weekly homily, though I am privileged to know a few preachers (interestingly, not on the whole Dominicans) who have the gift of doing just that, and, of course, some of our greater English poets have themselves been fine preachers. Principally, I’m thinking of preaching in locations other than that of Sunday Mass.

And in many such locations, poetry can be, I suggest, an immensely powerful resource for the proclamation of the truth and love of God, including that proclamation to ourselves of his truth and love that forms part of our personal prayer.  Poetry-based retreats are increasingly popular, and each year, in preparation for Lent and Advent, Christian publishing houses produce anthologies providing “a poem a day” for reflection throughout the season.

But the most affecting account of poetry as a resource for preaching beyond the Sunday homily that I have ever encountered is to be found in an intriguing essay entitled “poetry in a time of affliction”, in which theologian and poet, our brother Paul Murray draws attention to the distinctive way in which both the making and the receiving of poetry can offer consolation to those in extreme distress. This it does, he suggests, not merely by allowing trauma to be more precisely identified and thus more intimately owned, a quality which it shares with the empathetic listening to be found in both formal psychotherapy, and, if we are lucky, in conversation among friends, but by its possession of “something more” which is most fittingly described as beauty. Beauty, of course, is as notoriously hard to define as is poetry itself, and Murray does not attempt to do so here, but he does provide a series of texts in which he discerns it, varying widely in cultural context and literary sophistication, from the so-called terrible sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins, via St John of the Cross, Anna Akmotova and Rainer Maria Rilke, to a verse composed by a woman Murray himself accompanies as she wrestles with memories of childhood sexual abuse. The common feature of all the works he cites is that, despite their dealing with the most intensely dark of themes -  the anguish of depression, seeming abandonment by God, dehumanising violence both political and domestic – there is, nonetheless, a light to be found shining in the darkness in the way in which, as Murray puts it, each artist contemplates “ the lineaments of sorrow in a world of chaos and suffering, and yet still create[s] out of this material a thing of matchless beauty. Even in the poetry of the most profound sorrow, if the work is of the highest order, there is always something if you look for it – a lift in the words, an element of praise, a singing line”.

In this way, I think, in its beauty, the poetry of suffering can truly mirror – and implicitly therefore proclaim, preach – nothing less than the Paschal Mystery: Christ reigning in glory from the Cross, and rising from the dead with his scars still visible, though glorified.  And consequently, it can be of profound consolation to those who suffer, offering hope that beauty can be found, inexplicably and mysteriously, in our affliction too, not in a way that evades the scandal of our suffering, and certainly not in a way that justifies or glamorizes our pain, but in a way that transfigures and redeems it.

Finally, what of poetry as preaching? One thing to note at the outset, perhaps, is that English poetry, at any rate, as far as we know, was born in preaching: the oldest extant poem in any version of the English language, is a short, ecstatic lyric in the Northumbrian dialect of Old English, uttered, according to legend, by Caedmon, an illiterate lay brother of the monastery of Whitby some time in the 7th or 8th century, through angelic inspiration, in which Caedmon calls on his assembled community to “praise the ruler of heaven” for the way in which he has “established each wonder” of creation. The story is to be found in St Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, but it is also retold in a beautifully poignant poem by Denise Levertov, which both evokes the conventions of Anglo-Saxon poetry, including Caedmon’s own text, with its reliance on alliteration, and emphasises the aspects of the legend which are, I think, both the most touching and the most encouraging for us today.  Caedmon is, in Levertov’s first person narrative, a “clodhopper”, beset with social phobia while his more educated brethren fluently “talked as if talk were a dance”, to be found hunched by the door at every community feast, plotting his escape route back to the “barn/to be with the warm beasts/dumb among the body sounds/of the simple ones” when there was any threat of him having to speak up in front of his intimidatingly articulate confreres. And yet it is Caedmon who, on Levertov’s account, can stand for anyone who has ever been made to feel that poetry is not for them, that they are too obtuse or uncultured to get it: it is Caedmon the cowherd whose lips are touched with angelic fire and whose voice is “pulled into the ring of the dance”, and who is remembered to this day as the first name in the roll call of English poets.

I don’t think we consciously had Caedmon in mind when we first invited members of the university chaplaincy in Cambridge to compose poems – and, indeed music and visual art pieces – to be used to pray and proclaim the way of the Cross every year during Lent. But every year I am struck precisely by how, in this small example of preaching through poetry, we hear surprising – and refreshing -  voices: it is not always the most self-confident or conventionally sophisticated among our community who write the most effective pieces; struck too by how, in some cases, what cannot easily be said in prose can be brought to God’s healing light in poetry. I mention the Fisher House way of the cross by way of encouragement, therefore: it is not the work of professional poets, but simply of believers discovering how words can say more than words can say as we proclaim God’s truth and love to each other. I’ve included one of my own contributions to this annual project, in the anthology of poems I’ve put together for this weekend, not, incidentally, because it is better poetry than many of the other pieces produced by junior and senior members of the chaplaincy community – it isn’t – but simply because I have not had the opportunity to ask others for permission to make their work available outside the context for which it was written, and I thought I ought to have the courage to preach to you a little of what I practice at Fisher House.  But you are, of course, all most warmly welcome to come to Cambridge to see and hear more of what we do. Above all, though, I’d invite everyone to find their own way of preaching through poetry.

I’ve spoken today a lot about the relationship between poetry and truth. And so I’d like to conclude with a brief poem by Louis MacNeice, which asks, and answers, I think, in a particularly compelling way, the question of Pilate, which is also the question of Aquinas, the question of poets and theologians everywhere: the question, what is truth;


What is truth, asks Pilate,

Waits for no answer

Double the stakes, says the clock

To the aging dancer.

Double the guard says authority,

Treble the bars:

Holes in the sky, says the child,

Scanning the stars.