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Holy Saturday: The Poetry of Doubt

Posted By Adam Fitzgerald On April 3, 2010 @ 4:22 am In The Other | 3 Comments

She hears, upon that water wide without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
—Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’

“Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”
—T.S. Eliot

http://www.youtube.com/v/b39WzjxgYss
—Derrida on Christianity & Deconstruction

Hegel said we live in a speculative Good Friday—that the moment of philosophy is to think of God’s death, his absence, forseeing at least a hundred years the 20th century. Was there ever a century more sure and fraught with such an absence, devoid of absolute goods, of whatever Christianity meant, beyond its corruptions, scandals and inglorious crusades?

502 (Johnson)

At least — to pray — is left — is left —
Oh Jesus — in the Air —
I know not which thy chamber is —
I’m knocking — everywhere —

Thou settest Earthquake in the South —
And Maelstrom, in the Sea —
Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth —
Hast thou no Arm for Me?
—Emily Dickinson

To Him that was Crucified

My spirit to yours, dear brother;
Do not mind because many, sounding your name, do not understand you;
I do not sound your name, but I understand you, (there are others also;)
I specify you with joy, O my comrade, to salute you, and to salute those who are with you, before and since—and those to come also,
That we all labor together, transmitting the same charge and succession; 5
We few, equals, indifferent of lands, indifferent of times;
We, enclosers of all continents, all castes—allowers of all theologies,
Compassionaters, perceivers, rapport of men,
We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the disputers, nor any thing that is asserted;
We hear the bawling and din—we are reach’d at by divisions, jealousies, recriminations on every side, 10
They close peremptorily upon us, to surround us, my comrade,
Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over, journeying up and down, till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and the diverse eras,
Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races, ages to come, may prove brethren and lovers, as we are.
—Walt Whitman

Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the least thought upon, least looked upon day in the Easter Triduum. But it has in the last few years come to epitomize for me my own life, spiritual and otherwise, where the pomp and majesty of supernatural events ceases; no gods dying, no gods reborn—merely dormancy on all fronts. This is the day when Jesus lay within his tomb; when the great hoax of the messiah was over; when if there was a hell, Christ descended.

Like many others, reprobate poets included, Jesus Christ continues to be a keen fascination—tantalizing, provocative, elusive, unforgettable. No character of literature—not Don Quixote, not Hamlet, not Walt Whitman, not Emily Dickinson, to name only a few of the most formidable ever to be created by human imagination—can rival the shock and astonishment I had when learning about this specific figure. Was he a historical madman who preached a new idea, forgive? Was he a philosopher, like Buddha or Socrates, that simply wanted to cure ignorance with peace, and noble deeds of charity? Or was he something more? God or human, or both—Christ is the supremest fiction—and yet he’s someone I talk little about (religions may be public matters but faith is always private), being a lapsed Catholic (redundancy?), being someone who hasn’t gone to Church and received communion since July 2004. And yet there was a time, as some of my friends know, when I wanted nothing more than to envision myself as a Catholic priest. In high school, I read a book called “I, Judas” which sparked my imagination into a pure rapture of fever. Then I watched Zeferelli’s masterpiece, “Jesus of Nazareth,” which was filmed with shots to mirror actual paintings from the Renaissance by the Old Masters. The film produced, for lack of a better term, a total conversion. It told me who I was, whatever Robert Powell (son of Elizabeth Taylor) dramatized. A stellar cast, full of drama, clocking in at over four hours, the film convinced me for the first time in my adolescent life that I had to ask larger questions than family dramas; I had to reflect on more than my own dizzy thought processes. Soon after, I read the Gospels, and by the time I finished Saint Matthew, in my heart, I felt something like a priesthood awaited. Month by month, I read more, saw the connection and relevance of the Catholic church to this old history, of a man and his disciples, and then decided if such a thing as a vocation existed, I felt a call to preach, to dedicate myself to God. In my callowness and intensity, I thought though that loving God meant rejecting all else, and my faith being built on a very inchoate, jerrybuilt consciousness soon demurred from such a radical decision. It was during this time I was also coming to terms with being gay, something that scandalized me deeply.

But how does this all get us to poetry? Samuel Johnson, a man who it is dangerous to disagree with, thought that prayer was too high and holy for the lowly provinces of poetry, an artifical utterance. Though Johnson knew of Herbert and Donne, he didn’t have Hopkins or Christina Rosetti, or Geoffrey Hill. I can’t say whether or not he’s wrong—but I do believe poets have been deeply interested in questions of faith. Eliot, among them. In an essay I am in no state of mind to summarize or track down, Eliot rehearses this matter about whether poetry and belief can meet—how important it is that we share the beliefs of the work we read? To Harold Bloom, and many others less religious-minded than him, such an artist as Dante can be read as literature without loss. The greatness of it is not for its dogmatic assertions, for its religious doctrines or philosophies. Perhaps this bring us back to the problem of what a poet makes of his materials—are the materials of art irrelevant? Are we simply interested in what an artist does with those materials? This is the disinterested, mostly secularly, attitude of many authorities, Keats foremost, who espouses disinterestedness as the key to produce and appreciate art. As Eliot even himself says, reading Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies,’ it is not important that we agree with the muddle of his life-philosophy – but only see into the poetic rhetoric he exhorts and exults in. But Dante is a persistent challenge – Blake also.

The philosopher Richard Kearney has written in his new book, called Anatheism, about an attitude and mindset which approaches God after God – realizing how dismantled, impossible and unsettled a simple Christian faith must be for the postmodern mind. I can’t help feeling drawn to such a new approach, as I am myself often in love with such worldly authors who in their own way have wrestled, and tackled with, the God question. That is, the absence of God, or: What Comes Next. Derrida. Beckett. Stevens. Dickinson. Blake. Whitman. Hart Crane. They aren’t dogmatic followers of Sect of Creed – how could that be respectably fashionable for arch individualists? – but neither can they, on the other hand, ignore hearing the long withdrawing roar of the Sea of Faith.

No matter where we turn, God creeps into the picture — even on Holy Saturday — in our media-blitzed lives — when faith seems so irrelevant, so in the hand of fanatics and madmen eager to blow up or imperialize the world. The best lack all conviction, / The worst are full of passionate intensity. Christ casts quite a shadow over some great minds, artists and poets who even turned away, weren’t interested in God Talk, some downright hostilely rejected the plausibility of Resurrection. Safe in their Alabaster Chambers / Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection. For some – this post may be idle nostalgia. Memoir drivel. Propaganda. And yet, even if only a matter of all-too human grief, we dream of returns. I for one, hope as TSE said of Tennyson, that I may be at least religious for the degree of my doubt, if not my faith.

The Everlasting Gospel
By William Blake  (1757–1827)
THE VISION OF CHRIST that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the Friend of all Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.
Socrates taught what Meletus
Loath’d as a nation’s bitterest curse,
And Caiaphas was in his own mind
A benefactor to mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.
Was Jesus gentle, or did He
Give any marks of gentility?
When twelve years old He ran away,
And left His parents in dismay.
When after three days’ sorrow found,
Loud as Sinai’s trumpet-sound:
‘No earthly parents I confess—
My Heavenly Father’s business!
Ye understand not what I say,
And, angry, force Me to obey.
Obedience is a duty then,
And favour gains with God and men.’
John from the wilderness loud cried;
Satan gloried in his pride.
‘Come,’ said Satan, ‘come away,
I’ll soon see if you’ll obey!
John for disobedience bled,
But you can turn the stones to bread.
God’s high king and God’s high priest
Shall plant their glories in your breast,
If Caiaphas you will obey,
If Herod you with bloody prey
Feed with the sacrifice, and be
Obedient, fall down, worship me.’
Thunders and lightnings broke around,
And Jesus’ voice in thunders’ sound:
‘Thus I seize the spiritual prey.
Ye smiters with disease, make way.
I come your King and God to seize,
Is God a smiter with disease?’
The God of this world rag’d in vain:
He bound old Satan in His chain,
And, bursting forth, His furious ire
Became a chariot of fire.
Throughout the land He took His course,
And trac’d diseases to their source.
He curs’d the Scribe and Pharisee,
Trampling down hypocrisy.
Where’er His chariot took its way,
There Gates of Death let in the Day,
Broke down from every chain and bar;
And Satan in His spiritual war
Dragg’d at His chariot-wheels: loud howl’d
The God of this world: louder roll’d
The chariot-wheels, and louder still
His voice was heard from Zion’s Hill,
And in His hand the scourge shone bright;
He scourg’d the merchant Canaanite
From out the Temple of His Mind,
And in his body tight does bind
Satan and all his hellish crew;
And thus with wrath He did subdue
The serpent bulk of Nature’s dross,
Till He had nail’d it to the Cross.
He took on sin in the Virgin’s womb
And put it off on the Cross and tomb
To be worshipp’d by the Church of Rome.
Was Jesus humble? or did He
Give any proofs of humility?
Boast of high things with humble tone,
And give with charity a stone?
When but a child He ran away,
And left His parents in dismay.
When they had wander’d three days long
These were the words upon His tongue:
‘No earthly parents I confess:
I am doing My Father’s business.’
When the rich learnèd Pharisee
Came to consult Him secretly,
Upon his heart with iron pen
He wrote ‘Ye must be born again.’
He was too proud to take a bribe;
He spoke with authority, not like a Scribe.
He says with most consummate art
‘Follow Me, I am meek and lowly of heart,
As that is the only way to escape
The miser’s net and the glutton’s trap.’
What can be done with such desperate fools
Who follow after the heathen schools?
I was standing by when Jesus died;
What I call’d humility, they call’d pride.
He who loves his enemies betrays his friends.
This surely is not what Jesus intends;
But the sneaking pride of heroic schools,
And the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ virtuous rules;
For He acts with honest, triumphant pride,
And this is the cause that Jesus dies.
He did not die with Christian ease,
Asking pardon of His enemies:
If He had, Caiaphas would forgive;
Sneaking submission can always live.
He had only to say that God was the Devil,
And the Devil was God, like a Christian civil;
Mild Christian regrets to the Devil confess
For affronting him thrice in the wilderness;
He had soon been bloody Caesar’s elf,
And at last he would have been Caesar himself,
Like Dr. Priestly and Bacon and Newton—
Poor spiritual knowledge is not worth a button
For thus the Gospel Sir Isaac confutes:
‘God can only be known by His attributes;
And as for the indwelling of the Holy Ghost,
Or of Christ and His Father, it’s all a boast
And pride, and vanity of the imagination,
That disdains to follow this world’s fashion.’
To teach doubt and experiment
Certainly was not what Christ meant.
What was He doing all that time,
From twelve years old to manly prime?
Was He then idle, or the less
About His Father’s business?
Or was His wisdom held in scorn
Before His wrath began to burn
In miracles throughout the land,
That quite unnerv’d the Seraph band?
If He had been Antichrist, Creeping Jesus,
He’d have done anything to please us;
Gone sneaking into synagogues,
And not us’d the Elders and Priests like dogs;
But humble as a lamb or ass
Obey’d Himself to Caiaphas.
God wants not man to humble himself:
That is the trick of the Ancient Elf.
This is the race that Jesus ran:
Humble to God, haughty to man,
Cursing the Rulers before the people
Even to the Temple’s highest steeple,
And when He humbled Himself to God
Then descended the cruel rod.
‘If Thou Humblest Thyself, Thou humblest Me.
Thou also dwell’st in Eternity.
Thou art a Man: God is no more:
Thy own Humanity learn to adore,
For that is My spirit of life.
Awake, arise to spiritual strife,
And Thy revenge abroad display
In terrors at the last Judgement Day.
God’s mercy and long suffering
Is but the sinner to judgement to bring.
Thou on the Cross for them shalt pray—
And take revenge at the Last Day.’
Jesus replied, and thunders hurl’d:
‘I never will pray for the world.
Once I did so when I pray’d in the Garden;
I wish’d to take with Me a bodily pardon.’
Can that which was of woman born,
In the absence of the morn,
When the Soul fell into sleep,
And Archangels round it weep,
Shooting out against the light
Fibres of a deadly night,
Reasoning upon its own dark fiction,
In doubt which is self-contradiction?
Humility is only doubt,
And does the sun and moon blot out,
Rooting over with thorns and stems
The buried soul and all its gems.
This life’s five windows of the soul
Distorts the Heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not thro’, the eye
That was born in a night, to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in the beams of light.
Did Jesus teach doubt? or did He
Give any lessons of philosophy,
Charge Visionaries with deceiving,
Or call men wise for not believing?…
Was Jesus born of a Virgin pure
With narrow soul and looks demure?
If He intended to take on sin
The Mother should an harlot been,
Just such a one as Magdalen,
With seven devils in her pen.
Or were Jew virgins still more curs’d,
And more sucking devils nurs’d?
Or what was it which He took on
That He might bring salvation?
A body subject to be tempted,
From neither pain nor grief exempted;
Or such a body as might not feel
The passions that with sinners deal?
Yes, but they say He never fell.
Ask Caiaphas; for he can tell.—
‘He mock’d the Sabbath, and He mock’d
The Sabbath’s God, and He unlock’d
The evil spirits from their shrines,
And turn’d fishermen to divines;
O’erturn’d the tent of secret sins,
And its golden cords and pins,
In the bloody shrine of war
Pour’d around from star to star,—
Halls of justice, hating vice,
Where the Devil combs his lice.
He turn’d the devils into swine
That He might tempt the Jews to dine;
Since which, a pig has got a look
That for a Jew may be mistook.
“Obey your parents.”—What says He?
“Woman, what have I to do with thee?
No earthly parents I confess:
I am doing my Father’s business.”
He scorn’d Earth’s parents, scorn’d Earth’s God,
And mock’d the one and the other’s rod;
His seventy Disciples sent
Against Religion and Government—
They by the sword of Justice fell,
And Him their cruel murderer tell.
He left His father’s trade to roam,
A wand’ring vagrant without home;
And thus He others’ labour stole,
That He might live above control.
The publicans and harlots He
Selected for His company,
And from the adulteress turn’d away
God’s righteous law, that lost its prey.’
Was Jesus chaste? or did He
Give any lessons of chastity?
The Morning blushèd fiery red:
Mary was found in adulterous bed;
Earth groan’d beneath, and Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love.
Jesus was sitting in Moses’ chair.
They brought the trembling woman there.
Moses commands she be ston’d to death.
What was the sound of Jesus’ breath?
He laid His hand on Moses’ law;
The ancient Heavens, in silent awe,
Writ with curses from pole to pole,
All away began to roll.
The Earth trembling and naked lay
In secret bed of mortal clay;
On Sinai felt the Hand Divine
Pulling back the bloody shrine;
And she heard the breath of God,
As she heard by Eden’s flood:
‘Good and Evil are no more!
Sinai’s trumpets cease to roar!
Cease, finger of God, to write!
The Heavens are not clean in Thy sight.
Thou art good, and Thou alone;
Nor may the sinner cast one stone.
To be good only, is to be
A God or else a Pharisee.
Thou Angel of the Presence Divine,
That didst create this Body of Mine,
Wherefore hast thou writ these laws
And created Hell’s dark jaws?
My Presence I will take from thee:
A cold leper thou shalt be.
Tho’ thou wast so pure and bright
That Heaven was impure in thy sight,
Tho’ thy oath turn’d Heaven pale,
Tho’ thy covenant built Hell’s jail,
Tho’ thou didst all to chaos roll
With the Serpent for its soul,
Still the breath Divine does move,
And the breath Divine is Love.
Mary, fear not! Let me see
The seven devils that torment thee.
Hide not from My sight thy sin,
That forgiveness thou may’st win.
Has no man condemnèd thee?’
‘No man, Lord.’ ‘Then what is he
Who shall accuse thee? Come ye forth,
Fallen fiends of heavenly birth,
That have forgot your ancient love,
And driven away my trembling Dove.
You shall bow before her feet;
You shall lick the dust for meat;
And tho’ you cannot love, but hate,
Shall be beggars at Love’s gate.
What was thy love? Let Me see it;
Was it love or dark deceit?’
‘Love too long from me has fled;
’Twas dark deceit, to earn my bread;
’Twas covet, or ’twas custom, or
Some trifle not worth caring for;
That they may call a shame and sin
Love’s temple that God dwelleth in,
And hide in secret hidden shrine
The naked Human Form Divine,
And render that a lawless thing
On which the Soul expands its wing.
But this, O Lord, this was my sin,
When first I let these devils in,
In dark pretence to chastity
Blaspheming Love, blaspheming Thee,
Thence rose secret adulteries,
And thence did covet also rise.
My sin Thou hast forgiven me;
Canst Thou forgive my blasphemy?
Canst Thou return to this dark hell,
And in my burning bosom dwell?
And canst Thou die that I may live?
And canst Thou pity and forgive?’
Then roll’d the shadowy Man away
From the limbs of Jesus, to make them His prey,
An ever devouring appetite,
Glittering with festering venoms bright;
Crying ‘Crucify this cause of distress,
Who don’t keep the secrets of holiness!
The mental powers by diseases we bind;
But He heals the deaf, the dumb, and the blind.
Whom God has afflicted for secret ends,
He comforts and heals and calls them friends.’
But, when Jesus was crucified,
Then was perfected His galling pride.
In three nights He devour’d His prey,
And still He devours the body of clay;
For dust and clay is the Serpent’s meat,
Which never was made for Man to eat.
Seeing this False Christ, in fury and passion
I made my voice heard all over the nation.
What are those…
I am sure this Jesus will not do,
Either for Englishman or Jew.


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