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Between Belief and Unbelief

ISSUE:  Spring 1986
God and the Poets. By David Daiches. Oxford. $29. 95

Like imaginative writing, literary criticism is both an expression of and an escape from personality into an impersonal mode, essentially an act of deflected autobiography. Because theoretical issues dominate contemporary criticism, our literary critics do not generally disclose the personal concerns that motivate their intellectual searches. In a highly personal and eclectic book like David Daiches’ God and the Poets, however, we recuperate the personal origins of the critical enterprise. We are what we read and, for literary critics, what we write about.

God and the Poets is a verbatim transcript of the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology, delivered by Professor Daiches in 1983 in his native Edinburgh. The lectures center on poetry where God is significantly present and absent, with Wallace Stevens being as central to the book’s argument as John Milton. The book bears the traces of a life’s journey through both faith and secularism and is inconceivable without its grounding in two competing cultures, which Professor Daiches has described memorably in his memoirs of an Edinburgh childhood. Scion of a rabbinical family, raised with powerful competencies in Jewish, Classical, and Christian civilizations, urged as a child to both separate and harmonize them, David Daiches displays in this book the catholicity of his upbringing and taste: the Psalmists in Hebrew, Dante in Italian, Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots.

While Professor Daiches’ chosen texts reflect an idiosyncratic background, probably shared completely by few if any readers, the questions that motivate his discourse are central to our post-Enlightenment world: what relation can we establish with the founding texts of our culture, once we acknowledge our own belatedness from the source of their inspiration? What are the texts and imaginative strategies that define our modernity? What are the human values, encountered through their rich literary expression, that cause our civilization to cohere?

As a lifelong student of Christian doctrine, who came to that subject as a nonbeliever and has used it primarily as a tool for literary explication, Professor Daiches is particularly acute in pointing out the contradictions between religious creed and literary practice. One of the book’s most memorable chapters is its deconstruction of Milton’s ideology. The stated argument of Paradise Lost, the rational defense of God, is juxtaposed with a counterpoem, contained in the poem’s images, with their high valuation of postlapsarian human life. If work was the punishment for Adam and Eve’s transgression, what were they doing working before the fall, and why is all work described so lovingly in the poem? If the prelapsarian state precluded knowledge of evil, how then was Eve to have been suspicious of Satan? And once fallen, why so movingly and virtuously chastened? If human life were just one long waiting for Judgment Day, why then did Milton regret the blindness that alienated him from supposedly accursed human life? This pattern of suggestions is not the felix culpa of Christian doctrine, Daiches contends, but rather a wholly human love for what vanishes.

Professor Daiches has a knack for finding the pressure points of texts that disclose their inner contradictions. For the many readers who are put off by the absolutist rhetoric of the divine voice that speaks out of the whirlwind to Job, Daiches highlights God’s modest demurral at being unable to control the intractable problem of human evil. The author likewise is drawn to explicate the systemic contradictions of a particular religious doctrine in its historical context. The psyches and careers of Johnson, Collins, Cowper, and Smart illustrate the precariousness of personal commitment to revealed religion in the rationalist, deist 18th century, with its diminutions of God in terms of Newtonian science. The doctrine of predestination of the elect in Calvinism led logically to its own undoing, as depicted in Burns’ dramatic monologues or Hogg’s novelistic analysis of Scottish antinomianism. Religious doctrine is the fly, personal experience the ointment, in the literature to which Professor Daiches is most passionately drawn.

It is no accident, therefore, that a secularist critic studying the manifestations of God and religion in poetry should choose to explore in detail the poetry of God’s absence in the 19th century. The focus in Victorian poetry on individual mood, on external objects as correlatives for personal feeling, on the elegiac as the preferred genre all point to the fact that poets had nothing but the self to replace the language of traditional religion and that, for most English poets, this self was not adequate to the task of establishing a secure order of meaning, despite Tennyson’s ringing affirmations to the contrary. In contrast to this Tennysonian tradition, Daiches usefully juxtaposes the experiments of Whitman and Hopkins. Whitman found intersubjective meaning by depicting a selfhood that could enter into our selves precisely because it used no a priori religious categories to apprehend the world, while Hopkins, using those categories, refused to accede to the solipsist predicament of his contemporaries; even in his darkest lyrics, Daiches reminds us, he is not self- but God-absorbed. Daiches is further interested in 19th-century poets who rejected God outright, like James Thomson and Emily Dickinson, though perhaps without paying sufficient attention to the blasphemous qualities of the latter.

Among 20th-century poets, Wallace Stevens is singled out for his calm agnosticism (not achieved by any 19th-century poet) and for his replacement of religion with the essential gaudiness of poetry. Professor Daiches also values highly the poetry of his two Scottish countrymen, Edwin Muir and Hugh MacDiarmid, to whom he looks for their personal religious syntheses: a confrontation with the mystery of the universe through myth and symbolism rather than through a traditional theological language. Since these two are presented as peculiarly Scottish specimens, their experiments are not sufficiently contextualized for there to emerge a composite portrait, as for the 18th and 19th centuries, of the role of religious vision in the English-language poetry of our time. Professor Daiches is drawn to them, it seems clear, for their temperamental blending of the secular and the religious, the integrative personal project that describes the trajectory of his career and of this fine book.


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