I’ve recently been trying to learn more poetry off by heart. We were required to do this once or twice during my undergrad degree, by a wonderful postgraduate tutor who introduced us to a huge range of modern poets, many of whom I still think about and read often. I still have most of ‘Faint Music‘ by Robert Hass, though I struggle now with T.S. Eliot’s ‘La Figlia che Piange‘. And I’ve been thinking for a long time about the easy-to-remember quatrain by William Allingham, ‘Everything Passes and Vanishes‘. More recently I’ve been working on poems by Hera Lindsay Bird – ‘Having Already Walked Out On Everyone I Ever Said I Loved‘ – and Kim Moore – ‘In That Year‘.
In an effort to introduce more ‘Christian’ poetry into this project, I flicked through my copy of the Lion Christian Poetry Collection and came across ‘A Letter to John Donne‘ by the twentieth-century poet and critic C.H. Sisson. I was struck by its disarmingly conversational, wry opening stanza:
I understand you well enough, John Donne
First, that you were a man of ability
Eaten by lust and by the love of God
Then, that you crossed the Sevenoaks High Street
As rector of Saint Nicholas:
I am of that parish.
John Donne, of course, was himself the most famous of the ‘Metaphysical’ poets of the seventeenth century, and Sisson wrote at least two poems about him, evidently inspired by the geographical connection he points out in this one. It’s a somewhat startling and ironic piece which takes aim at versions of Christianity which set aside or devalue embodiment. It wistfully imagines what the ‘extravagant’ Donne, who always had the measure of what it means to be an embodied, sexual, sinful human being, might have to say to his educated, materialistic parishioners, were he still rector of St Nicholas Sevenoaks.
Two parts of the poem made me think of sharing it with you today. First is Sisson’s brisk takedown of the worship of intellect, coming from someone firmly in the world of the educated upper middle class:
To be a man of ability is not much
You may see them on the Sevenoaks platform any day
Ability is not even the game of a fool
But the click of a computer operating in a waste
This felt unnervingly like the poet turning to look me straight in the eye. It’s an age-old problem: for most of us, to be in the academic world is to struggle with a measure of intellectual vanity – whether that manifests on any given day as arrogance or insecurity. ‘Ability’ like Donne’s, like that of the Sevenoaks professionals, Sisson tells us, is nothing more than an aimless machine if it’s not accompanied by full humanity, grounded in the love of God. So being puffed up about one’s own ability, or really preoccupied with it at all, is a foolish error.
The second portion is Sisson’s severe assessment of the kind of Christian teaching that focuses only on the soul:
You brought body and soul to this church
Walking there through the park alive with deer
But now what animal has climbed into your pulpit?
One whose pretension is that the fear
Of God has heated him into a spirit
An evaporated man no physical ill can hurt
The ‘incarnate Christ’ can have nothing to say to us if we degrade our view of human nature, even unintentionally, to centre the spirit at the expense of the body – and, by extension, the spiritual aspect of anything in the world at the expense of its whole, glorious, physical reality. And it’s not just an error Christians are prone to. Secular culture often does this too, just converting the spiritual side of the equation to the mental and so creating a model of humanity as essentially ‘brains on sticks’ – whether it’s transhumanistic desires to convert consciousness to data and transcend the body, or simply the often unvoiced assumption that one’s physical place and habits don’t matter, only the capacity of the mind to do whatever tasks we set ourselves.
Does this resonate with issues in your field, or your life more broadly? Are you tempted to think of yourself or others as ‘evaporated men’ or women, or to place your ability too high in your personal anthropology?
When it comes to memorising poems, one popular choice from scripture is a good antidote to this way of thinking – Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd;(Psalm 23:1-2, NLT)
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
The Psalmist shows that we are more like sheep than we are like machines, and that this is a very good thing. A gentle shepherd God leads us; rather than ‘operating in a waste’, we can feed in a verdant pasture. We have everything we need.