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Michael Allen Mikolajczak "Something Understood": A Familiar Essay on Poetry, Prayer, and Helen C. White Avid readers of poetry who also pray to the deity oftheir particular religions often feel a consanguinity between the two forms of expression. But poetry, some might argue, is too formal, measured , contrived, and concerned with precision to be closely associated with prayer, which is spontaneous, personal, or ritualized. But some features ofthe liturgy—and certainly the sonority and incomparable grace ofThomas Cranmer's Book ofCommon Prayer—suggest the difficulty ofa neat distinction, as does an encounter with the"raw school" of poetry with its emphasis on immediacy, passion, and "unmediated" experience and feeling. This range between a formality approaching poetry and an outpouring nearer to the raw feelings of the heart in anguish can also be seen in traditions of faith other than the Christian: Baha'i, African, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Native American, etc. Even reading in translation, for example, the prayers of Tukaram, a seventeenth-century Indian mystic, one can see in the piety the distinct pull of poetry. Looking at prayers across religious traditions—even despite the inherent drawbacks oftranslation (tradutore, tradittori)—brings the realization that poetry and prayer LOGOS 2:3 SUMMER 1999 l68LOGOS are often intertwined, are deeply rooted in the human heart, and are elemental, hearkening back to the very beginnings of the human psyche. In 19C4, almost half a century ago, the Benedictine Archabbey and College of St. Vincent in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, invited Helen C. White of the Department of English of the University of Wisconsin —Madison to deliver its eighth Wimmer lecture, a series established in the archabbey's centenary year to honor its founder Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B. The lecture brought together two powerhouses : one a religious foundation of great and continuing influence —the first presence of the Benedictine ethos in the United States; the other, a literary, critical, and scholarly eminence who through her wise intelligence helped renew interest in the religious poetry of seventeenth-century England and who practiced her Christianity with exemplary joy. Today, Helen C. White is largely remembered in the building that is named for her on the University ofWisconsin—Madison campus. Her books are out of print, and most of what she has written is unknown. Her religious novels never attained any critical attention (and that is probably for the best, for her gifts were really not in fiction making), and her critical works—even the deeply humane The Metaphysical Poets:A Study in Religious Experience—rarely get attention, having been replaced by scholarship ofgreater weight and sophistication . Nonetheless, I still return to The Metaphysical Poets every now and then to enjoy its restraint, judiciousness, and deeply held conviction that poetry is more than ornament in human affairs, that it is, to paraphrase Simone Weil, as needed as is bread. Inevitable as it is, and although few would wish it otherwise, the passing oftime and the loss ofprevious achievements is tinged with sadness; reflecting on it brings in "the eternal note of sadness" that Matthew Arnold's speaker hears in "Dover Beach." Helen C. White served the profession of letters and her Christian faith well, and although she is now a minor figure in a small and relatively rarefied POETRY, PRAYER, AND HELEN C. WHITE area ofhistory, her bibliography does contain items that continue to speak compellingly and are worthy ofrecovery. One such item is her slim, fifty-nine-page lecture Prayer and Poetry. Poetry and prayer, White first notes, have their source in the same sort ofexperience, one that disturbs "the calm waters ofeveryday acceptance and shake[s] the consciousness out of its lethargy and its complacency." This experience most ordinarily comes through surprise,"with its handmaid wonder." In locating wonder as a source ofpoetry and prayer, White touches upon a quality ofexperience that many regard as essential for a wholesome and happy existence. As Robert Langbaum says of Shakespeare's The Tempest: "The most admirable characters are those who can perceive order in disorder, because they have the capacity for wonder."And he further argues that "the whole point of the play [is] to make us feel that Miranda is right in her perception ofreality," which is...


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