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  • Criticism and ContemplationSteps toward an Agapeic Criticism
  • Michael Martin (bio)

In this article, I would like to focus on poetry as the site for exploring a criticism grounded in contemplation and this for several reasons. First of all, though a contemplative approach certainly applies to other domains as well, as a scholar of literature and as a poet, as both outside of and within poetry, I feel, despite my inadequacies, a certain obligation to speak on this subject. Secondly, poetry, because of the almost homeopathic concentration of language and energy it can possess, augmented by its concern with meaning and the disclosure of truth, is the paradigmatic art form for exploring a criticism of contemplation. Human beings to a significant degree associate their being and their selfhood with language. If someone fixes our cars or furnaces, for example, we feel grateful: if they correct our grammar, we feel offended or ashamed. If language is “the house of being,” as Heidegger claimed (following Hölderlin—a poet), then we should be able to account poetry “the house of the house of being.” My long relationship with poetry has convinced me, as Jean Wahl has argued, that an honest encounter with poetry reveals poetry by its very nature to be a kind of a spiritual exercise, wherein “Le mystériuex est ici tout près; et l’ici-tout-près est mystériuex”1 (“The mysterious is here very near, and the here-very-near is mysterious.”) [End Page 41]

In a letter to Fr. Joseph-Marie Perrin written from Marseilles and dated May 15, 1942, the philosopher, activist, and mystic Simone Weil writes of an intimate experience with a poem:

There was a young English Catholic [at Solesmes] from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance—for I always prefer saying chance rather than Providence—made of him a messenger to me. For he told me of the existence of those English poets of the seventeenth century who are named metaphysical. In reading them later on, I discovered the poem of which I read you what is unfortunately a very inadequate translation. It is called “Love.” I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.2

Surely, this is a startling confession, but her experience is not, I think, as rare as one might assume. Weil’s encounter with Herbert’s poem, though clearly possessing religious significance to her, bears more than a little resonance with what Richard Rorty, hardly a religious thinker, has called an initiatory event of “inspired criticism.” For Rorty, inspired criticism originates in the kind of experiences many of us have had: “the result of an encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the critic’s conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes.”3 Does anyone study the humanities seriously—certainly at what could be called a “professional level”—without having had such an experience? It [End Page 42] is difficult to imagine this not being the case, but, all too often, that initial enthusiasm and astonishment becomes disfigured as sarcasm, suspicion, even contempt, perhaps especially in the case of the “professionals.” Weil’s intimacy with Herbert’s poem, however, challenges such skepticism and puts its adherents on the defensive. Comfortable with a programmatic and doctrinaire naturalism with roots in the Enlightenment, many would dismiss her as deluded, regressed, clinging to infantile fantasies, narcissistic, or worse. Even in her sensitive, sympathetic documentary, An Encounter with Simone...


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