Biography 26.2 (2003) 317-319
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It is now a commonplace of New Testament criticism that the gospels were written from and for faith, testimonies to a past that foretold the future, which arrived in its telling, in lives conformed to the gospel story. The gospels are poetical texts, if by poetry we mean that intensity of writing which makes people see the world anew, that makes them hear and see, and live differently. In this way the gospel writers were the first poets of Jesus, and so an investigation of how later poetry has imagined Jesus is an investigation of how later poetry supplements—and so completes—the first imagining of Jesus, that is always not yet completed. The further imagining of what is already given is a traditional response—in both Judaism and Christianity—to what we now call the differential economy of textual meaning, but which was at first a theological response to the perceived inexhaustibility of God's word. But now even biblical scholars, following theologians and literary critics, recognize that when biblical characters are culturally relevant they live as much in their re-imagining as in their first scriptural appearance, which is important only because it has been re-imagined.
Peggy Rosenthal does not write as a theologian, but her beautifully constructed history of the poets' Jesus serves as both a literary and as a theological resource for understanding the life of Jesus in Western culture—and not [End Page 317] only in the West, of course. Jesus followed the trade routes of his devotees, and is now a figure of global significance. Peggy Rosenthal's book augments her earlier co-edited anthology, Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry (1998), and follows the earlier book in its breadth of attention, while not pretending to comprehend everything that might be included. Most obviously, the book is concerned with poetry rather than the larger category of the "poetic" (though prose works, such as Ernest Renan's La Vie de Jésus, are not entirely excluded). After a brief survey of a largely western poetical tradition (chapter 1), Rosenthal concentrates on poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The book thus focuses on the modern Jesus, Jesus in modernity, and thus on Jesus in contention with a post-Christian "secularity."
Rosenthal's nineteenth-century Jesus (chapter 2) had to face the growing skepticism of biblical scholars in both Germany and England. He responded by becoming a moral exemplar and, in Rosenthal's reading of William Blake, a creative poet himself: the man who reveals humanity's divinity. On the other side of the Atlantic, Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed similar sentiments, as did Walt Whitman. But for the so-called Romantic poets—Coleridge, Shelley, Goethe—who made the poet himself the hero of their imagining, Jesus could only appear as a competitor artist, and so was made to disappear. With the Romantics, Jesus became only human, and any remaining sublimity finally departed in a poetry of doubt and dismay in England (Tennyson, Arnold, and Clough), and of disgust and dismissal in France (Baudelaire). With such writers we approach "modernism" and an utterly banal Jesus (chapter 3). Here Rosenthal evokes Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud, and the Latin American poet Rubén Dario, whose "Paternoster to Pan" alludes to the dismissed Jesus even as it invokes the return of a more ancient deity: "Our Pan, which art on earth . . ."
Such poetic renunciations of the old Christianity anticipated the calamities of the twentieth century that sealed the fate of the once divine Jesus. Yet even as the West gave up on the God who would not save it from itself, so the birth of global culture, in the second part of the twentieth century, enabled the appearance of more local, more particular Jesuses. In Africa, Rosenthal finds a poetry of "negritude" that reclaimed the colonialists' Jesus as one of the oppressed—a...