- Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period by Anthony Domestico
Anthony Domestico has the gift of lucidity. It is a welcome gift for those who engage in literary criticism, and a rare skill for those who wander in the intractable thickets of theology. To use prose as a medium for speaking about poetry already entails a translation, a loss. But to fling a smattering of words in the direction of the Almighty requires—aside from the theologian's presumption—an approach to language that privileges apophasis, indirection, and silence, in addition to the traditional tools of literature and criticism.
The first chapter of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period offers a vivid summary of general theological trends in the early twentieth century, though it tends to frame too broadly the actual focus of the chapters that follow. In spite of the title, Domestico does not cover the vast terrain of poetry and theology in the modernist period. His literary authors are restricted to the crucial trinity of T. S. Eliot, David Jones, and W. H. Auden, and his theology is confined to the narrower realm of orthodox Christianity. What is meant by "orthodox" is difficult to pin down, but here it is meant as shorthand for the anti-liberal faction of twentieth-century theology: [End Page 233] writers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, Jacques Maritain, the neo-Thomists, or any theologian who reacted against Friedrich Schleiermacher and nineteenth-century ideas of human progress and innate goodness. For his purposes, Domestico straightforwardly defines theology as "the systematic investigation of revealed truths," which is to say, he leaves to the side the logical and rhetorical problems of apologetics, the relations of liturgy and practice to belief, as well as the entire spectrum of theological investigation devoted to phenomenology and religious experience (16). The advantage of this restricted compass is that it allows Domestico to discuss theology in terms that his chosen literary authors would approve.
How Domestico positions himself within the critical conversation is sometimes overstated or unclear, but such matters do not unravel the specific arguments he weaves, even though they continually tug at their hem. For example, he claims that study of the relationship between theology and modernist poetry is "long over-looked," and he proposes taking a "radically different tack" from the assumption that theological discourse is just a smokescreen for political or aesthetic concerns (3, 4). Certainly the cutting edge of literary thought in the 1980s and 90s condescended to theology in this ideological way. But during that same timeframe, hundreds of literary scholars—especially those writing on Eliot, Auden, and Jones—went about their historical research and criticism, unfazed by the corrosive extremities of high theory or the secular settlement of academia. Domestico knows this to an extent, citing Lyndall Gordon's biographies of Eliot (1977, 1988) as an example of scholarship that took Eliot's religious beliefs seriously. In addition to Gordon, though, there are major scholars such as Ronald Schuchard, Jewel Spears Brooker, Christopher Ricks, and uncountable others who wrote even during the height of post-modernism as if Eliot believed what he said, that God was real, and as if theology was not merely a disingenuous way of hiding one's politics. In another attempt to widen his frame, Domestico relays the interesting fact that "Marianne Moore recommended the work of the Swiss reformed theologian Karl Barth to Elizabeth Bishop and urged Ezra Pound to read Reinhold Niebuhr" (3). But aside from the general conclusion that this was "the kind of world in which modernist poetry was written," he does not follow up on what, if anything, such tenuous connections might tell us about the relationship of those three artists to theological discourse (3).
When Domestico turns to the work of exegesis and tracing historical influences in Eliot, Jones, and Auden, his plow unearths rich materials. Domestico places the middle-period Auden in conversation with Søren Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, and the underappreciated Charles Williams. Niebuhr's explanation of original sin not as human...