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A More Beautiful Question

The Spiritual in Poetry and Art

Glenn Hughes

Publication Year: 2011


As more and more people in North America and Europe have distanced themselves from mainstream religious traditions over the past centuries, a “crisis of faith” has emerged and garnered much attention. But Glenn Hughes, author of A More Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art, contends that despite the withering popularity of faith-based worldviews, our times do not evince a decline in spirituality. One need only consider the search for “alternative” religious symbolisms, as well as the growth of groups espousing fundamentalist religious viewpoints, to recognize that spiritual concerns remain a vibrant part of life in Western culture.
            Hughes offers the idea that the modern “crisis of faith” is not a matter of vanishing spiritual concerns and energy but rather of their disorientation, even as they remain pervasive forces in human affairs. And because art is the most effective medium for spiritually evocation, it is our most significant touchstone for examining this spiritual disorientation, just as it remains a primary source of inspiration for spiritual experience. 
A More Beautiful Question is concerned with how art, and especially poetry, functions as a vehicle of spiritual expression in today’s modern cultures. The book considers the meeting points of art, poetry, religion, and philosophy, in part through examining the treatments of consciousness, transcendence, and art in the writings of twentieth-century philosophers Eric Voegelin and Bernard Lonergan. A major portion of A More Beautiful Question is devoted to detailed “case studies” of three influential modern poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and T. S. Eliot. In these and its other chapters, the book examines the human need for artistic symbols that evoke the mystery of transcendence, the ways in which poetry and art illuminate the spiritual meanings of freedom, and the benefits of an individual’s loving study of great literature and art.
A More Beautiful Question has a distinctive aim—to clarify the spiritual functions of art and poetry in relation to contemporary confusion about transcendent reality—and it meets that goal in a manner accessible by the layperson as well as the scholar. By examining how the best art and poetry address our need for spiritual orientation, this book makes a valuable contribution to the philosophies of art, literature, and religion, and brings deserved attention to the significance of the “spiritual” in the study of these disciplines.

Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. i-viii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

Regarding such matters as philosophy, theology, poetry, and art, the literary critic George Steiner once wrote: “I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places.” ...

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pp. 1-8

Toward the end of the twentieth century, the great Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky proclaimed his credo that the calling of art is to express our “spiritual potential” and to oppose all that is “hopelessly materialistic” in present-day culture through the creation of images that express the human “aspiration towards the infinite.” The work of all artists worthy of the name, ...

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1. Childhood, Transcendence, and Art

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pp. 9-22

Curious though it may seem, the most illuminating way to begin a study of the spiritual uses of art in contemporary life is through an account of the historical “discovery” of transcendence. To make clear why this is the case, we must examine precisely what was entailed in that discovery, which, in turn, requires that we consider the most important common feature of all ancient ...

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2. Spiritual Functions of Art

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pp. 23-37

Any significant artwork gives a strong impression of integrated completeness. It presents us with a wholeness of content and form that is deeply satisfying. Whatever its subject matter—however specific or delimited or mundane this may be—its elements and structure together provoke in us a sense of self- containment and totality. In this way it reminds us, emotionally and...

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3. Elemental Meaning and Gerard Manley Hopkins

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pp. 38-61

An hour east of Seattle, in the heavily forested Cascade Mountains near Snoqualmie Pass, there is a short trail that leads from a side road off the freeway to a secluded clearing. In college days, friends and I used to make the drive from Seattle on sunny afternoons to sit and talk in this spot on the bank of a rushing stream called Denny’s Creek. On one such occasion, I became ...

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4. Emily Dickinson and the Unknown God

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pp. 62-87

Of American poets taught regularly in secondary education, the two most ill-served are Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Students are typically introduced to these poets through their most-anthologized poems, the majority of which are chosen in part for their accessibility—technically fluid and not too daunting conceptually—but also for a sort of charmingness, albeit in both ...

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5. A Pattern of Timeless Moments: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

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pp. 88-106

My first encounter with T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece, the poem-cycle Four Quartets, took place when I was twenty years old. The conditions were unusually felicitous. I was visiting family friends in southeast England, and during a period when my host family was away for a few days, I noticed a BBC program announcement in the newspaper. That evening there was to be a broadcast of ...

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6. Art and Spiritual Growth

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pp. 107-128

The previous three chapters on Hopkins, Dickinson, and Eliot were devoted to closely investigating how each author used the art of poetry to express the nature and meaning of profound spiritual experiences and insights. For each poet, art was a means of discovering, articulating, and communicating what it means to be a creature consciously participating in a human drama grounded ...

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pp. 129-134

Art serves many purposes. In our casual living, it entertains and relaxes us, comforts, humors, moves, and inspires us. But always, whether in its more trivial or its more serious and ambitious forms, it reveals to us possibilities of perceiving, feeling, thinking, and acting; communicates emotion in an immediate, elemental fashion; and at least indirectly reminds us of the many uses of ...


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pp. 135-146


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pp. 147-156


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pp. 157-165


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pp. 166-168

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272478
E-ISBN-10: 0826272479
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219176
Print-ISBN-10: 0826219179

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1