Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Sacramental Poem, Presented by Nike.

About this time last week, Rod posted to his blog a comment of mine to spur a discussion about sacramentalism. I'd like to take a moment to thank Rod for doing so, even though his contribution to that discussion was much smaller than I had hoped -- one brief comment out of literally a hundred. When he does address critics like Kathleen and me, it is almost always to point again and again to his book, which obviously isn't nearly as interactive as an online discussion. The give-and-take that comes with fielding tough questions has been sorely lacking.

In addition to pointing to his book, he also pointed out a poem, "God's Grandeur", which Rod says speaks about this sensibility of sacramentalism. I didn't comment on the poem, and neither (I think) did anyone else. The comments thread seems to be on its last legs, and I think that my thoughts on the poem belong here, so I hope you will indulge a bit of poetry.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
        It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
        It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
        And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
        And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
        There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
        Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
        World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

To be completely honest, I'm generally not a huge fan of poetry. There are only a handful of poems that I can say have genuinely moved me: a few of Shakespeare's sonnets, and Friar Laurence's speech that opens Act II Scene III of Romeo and Juliet; a handful of poems by C.S. Lewis; "Ulysses", by Tennyson; this poem from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; maybe a couple others. Not counting school assignments, I myself have written only two poems in my life, both about women. I'm no poetry fiend, by any stretch of the imagination.

It is thus not surprising that I'm not moved by this particular poem; so few move me. But I think it may well express Rod's version of sacramentalism -- as I understand it -- and even highlight my fundamental problems with the sensibility.

(And it provides substance for those who want to examine Mr. Dreher's psyche. "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" Does Ray Dreher, who publishes under the pseudonym of "Rod", wonder to himself, "Why doesn't anyone listen to me?")

The poem asks, why does man now no longer consider God and His sovereign rule?

What is Gerard Manley Hopkins' answer?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
        And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
        And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


Too much commerce, too much humanity, and shoes.

Perhaps, in preparing to star in the classic "Air Jordan" ads, Spike Lee was inspired by Hopkins. Was Michael Jordan's prowess on the court due to his athletic abilities, his intelligence, and his unstoppable determination? Heavens, no. It's gotta be the shoes.

Is modern man's refusal to acknowledge God and His rule due to human free will and a natural tendency to sin that we share with pre-modern man and that can be traced back to the Fall that occurred while man was yet in the garden? Nope; it's gotta be the shoes.

It's gotta be modernity.

I choke on the disconnect between this poem's nostalgia for a virtuous pre-modern past that never existed and what the Bible teaches about the source of sin. And yet, Rod apparently finds it to be an inspiring piece that communicates his sensibility.

That is the problem.


(Well, that and the irony of it all: Hopkins writing about damnable footwear, and Dreher giving the NRO piece that started this three-ring circus the title of "Birkenstocked Burkeans". As a society we're too materialistic, he preaches, but doesn't Rod have such very nice things?)

24 Comments:

Blogger Pauli said...

Shoes, of course! Damnable shoes. This reminds me of these primitive, wild-eyed feminist types I read about once who claim that the world really started going downhill when people (men, naturally) began planting crops in rows. I suppose before that disastrous innovation became rampant there existed some type of tribal sensibility which made this type of fascist farming taboo; they must have just tossed some seeds here and there. But the horrible idol of progress led some totem-toting technocrats into forbidden territory merely to increase their food supply and chance of survival. Soon wars ensued, slavery and prostitution became commonplace alongside rampant shoe-wearing... fast-forward 10 or 15 thousand years and we have ATMs, fast-food, Doc Martens, SUVs and alienation from Mother Earth.

So forget co-ops and organic farming -- they are merely feeble attempts to "return to roots". These folks would snort at Crunchy Cons -- "Too little, too late, we're afraid. Don't you get it? It doesn't matter where you shop -- shopping is EVIL. It doesn't matter how you farm -- farming is EVIL. Using a metal tool on the Mother Earth is RAPE of the worst kind!"

We joked here about the hypocrisy of Rod's book being sold at Wal-mart, but it's no joke to these folks. They would probably say a wise man like Rod should be sitting around in a tee-pee teaching the youngsters how to bow-hunt possums and which mushrooms wouldn't kill you instead of making publishers rich or writing in blogs. Progress of any kind is evil.

Following this mentality, use of the world equals abuse. If you have more food that you can eat in 1 day, or if you have more than me, you have too much. No, the crunchies don't go too far into this moonbat territory, but I propose that is merely because their rose colored glasses only see so far into the past.

It is quite revelatory, although not surprising, that Rod's replies to Bubba consist of advising him to watch a foreign film containing a lot of symbolism and to read a poem. Not very direct responses; is he expecting to convince anybody this way or just impress with his knowledge of verse? Unclear. He should take a lesson from the Cubeland Mystic.

[Regarding shoes and poetry, read this it's funny.]

9:14 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

...this poem's nostalgia for a virtuous pre-modern past that never existed....

This is a misreading of the poem.

Hopkins isn't suggesting man in the pre-modern past was virtuous. He is suggesting that man in the modern present has produced an environment in which it is easy to not notice how God's grandeur is present in creation.

I don't see that there's much to that suggestion a Christian could object to.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Oh, and in terms of "damnable footwear," you really can't be shoes as a poetic device to signify what separates man from nature. That's quite literally what shoes are for.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Oh, rats, one other thing:

Your "modern man's refusal to acknowledge God and His rule" sounds like more a Reformed than a Catholic reading, and it's not really what either the poem or sacramentalism in general is going after.

They are immediately concerned, not with God's sovereignty, but with His immanence.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Pauli said...

Tom, what about this then: "....For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature —have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened...." (Romans 1:18-32) for the whole thing.

So St. Paul says that this denial of God's sovereignty, his glory, grandeur & the laws of the natural order has been going on "since the creation of the world." The part before what I included talks about men "suppressing the truth" and I think you could say there's more suppression in modern times, but again it's a matter of degrees, not a qualitative difference.

9:29 AM  
Blogger The Contra Crunchy said...

I think the question needs to be asked at some point: if all this is true, then how can an honest crunchy-con justify not living as the Amish do? The stench of man infects the truck which brings the farmer's produce to market is smeared with the stench of man. The website which tells you where that market is, that is the fruit of an awesome and hellish industrial armature. "The human stain" is everywhere.

Under other circumstances I hate arguments of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy in general impugns the messenger but not the message. Yet here, the messenger is the message. It is what is in *your* heart that matters. So I have to ask, where, and how, do we draw the lines between the acceptable use of the features of modern life, and those which would destroy us?

So long as you are talking only about how you live your own life, I could care less. My mother refused to allow a microwave in the house for fear it caused cancer. This would be only mildly kooky if you didn't know she also smoked a carton of Marlboros a week. But, she never proposed banning microwaves, or for that matter, cigarettes.

This has always been my first and foremost problem with the CC gang. They raise "concerns" and "misgivings" about things, and mutter darkly about legislation and regulation, but never get specific. They're like Andrew Jackson, cancelling the charter of the bank because it pisses them off. Not sufficient.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Pauli said...

I've thought about the Amish before in relation to the whole crunchy conundrum. They definitely fulfill a good part of the ideal summarized in the crunchy manifesto, but fail at other parts of the spirit. They have the community thing down pat and the food is 100% crunchy-kosher of course.

But in some areas they are all about efficiency rather than what a crunchy would call beauty. Their homes and churches are very plain.

I was in one Amish guy's house and he apologized for it in his peculiar Germanized English. I felt bad; I said "Looks fine to me!" It was like a cabin you'd stay in at a campground, very utilitarian – would have made Rod's elitist design friends shudder. There was a simple bedroom upstairs in the rafters with a bed and a table. On the table someone had left a nice ole' Winchester. No child locks on that pappy, ready to load and fire at some dinner.

My experience with those and other Amish is that would also agree with us on the "we leave you alone, you leave us alone" motif. Leave the preachin' to the preacher. I'm not about to attempt to sell them a microwave and they aren't about to make me give up mine. They have a spiritual simplicity lacking in the crunchies, IMO. It's impossible to imagine them putting on airs like the organic farmer in the CC book: "You see, the reason we live like this is we're (ahem) Christians and God would rather us do this than lead a meaningless life selling insurance policies."

11:21 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

... again it's a matter of degrees, not a qualitative difference.

Right, and the poem is a poem, not a pedagogical treatise.

If the point is to simply contradict everything Rod says, that's not an argument. If the point is to figure out what he's trying to say before deciding whether he's correct, that I think requires a more generous reading both of Rod and the sources he mentions than is sometimes given here.

6:02 AM  
Blogger Bubba said...

Tom, allow me to go back to your earlier criticisms of my original post. Even if I granted the premise that modern civilization has "produced an environment in which it is easy to not notice how God's grandeur is present in creation," I don't think it follows that a civilization that is more closely rooted to nature is ipso facto more aware of God. Hence, nature worship, pantheism, polytheism, and fertility cults.

If the preacher of Ecclesiastes can see that everything we do is vanity, and if Peter can say that flesh, like grass, withers, then a man can look at the expanse of the earth around him and the stars above him and feel very much alone. Looking at the desolation of the Arizona desert or even the forests of Appalachia, one can wonder whether God cares about such a small thing as an individual human being -- and I'm not even accounting for our infinitessimal place in the time and space as described by science.


Yeah, I know that the idea of shoes was being used artistically to represent all that separates us from nature. It's still quite amusing that Rod makes a big deal, not of going barefoot, but of wearing Birkenstocks.


And I surmised that the poem was talking about God's rule with the reference to His rod -- which could be seen either as a royal scepter or the shepherd's tool which is used to corral sheep.

But you write, of the poem and sacramentalism, "They are immediately concerned, not with God's sovereignty, but with His immanence."

If God is omnipresent (and I presume we both believe that He is), then He is in the city as well as the country, in the suburban McMansion as well as in the funky bungalow. I believe the wise thing to do is learn and teach others how to see God wherever one is, rather than trying to find Him somewhere else.

The quest for a constant awareness of His presence is, in my opinion, a bit of a fool's errand: our obedience is what we ought to care about, not feeling His immanence -- doing His will, rather than try to manufacture feelings, because there will be times when, emotionally and spiritually, each of us will wander in the desert. What matters is whether you are faithful in that wandering, even if God feels a thousand miles away (or even not there at all). This desire to feel God's presence constantly is what causes people to bounce from church to church -- and from denomination to denomination.


I'm not trying to gainsay Rod. When I agree with him -- which is increasingly rare -- I make that clear.

I think I am giving Rod as fair a reading as I can. I've certainly been more patient than I probably have any business being, and I think I do understand that his idea of sacramentalism is more than just being thankful for the food that's in front of you.

He said as much himself. "This worldview encompasses the gratitude of which you speak, but it takes it further, and sees the mysterious presence of the divine in created things."

I don't think it's unfair to take Rod at his word and to look at the poem in light of what he's written.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Bubba:

If I return to the point that it's a poem, not a sermon, it's to suggest that language like "grant the premise," "it follows," and "ipso facto" doesn't take quite the right tack for discussing "God's Grandeur" -- though I'll admit that such language comes much more easily to me than does poetic language.

Hopkins is recording his impressions, not his doctrine, and he does so in a very artificial way; the whole sonnet was evidently written in service of the "shining from shook foil" image. Whether someone can be unhappy in the Arizona wilderness is beside his point, since the only necessity contained in his point is the flaming out of God's grandeur.

Which is about as far as my poetic criticism takes me.

Now, as to this -- "the wise thing to do is learn and teach others how to see God wherever one is, rather than trying to find Him somewhere else" -- I agree, special exceptions aside.

But this -- "our obedience is what we ought to care about, not feeling His immanence" -- presents a false dilemma, probably because it misrepresents what God's immanence means for us.

God's immanence is something to be known, just as is His sovereignty, and the proper knowledge of the one is not only not opposed to the proper knowledge of the other, but they reinforce each other. To say we ought not care about God's immanence -- which, I note, is not quite what you wrote -- is to say something contrary to Scripture, which presents it again and again as something to contemplate and celebrate.

To regard God's immanence as merely something to be felt, as you seem to do, is to miss that it is also to be known and indeed lived. It is no fool's errand to practice the presence of God, in Brother Lawrence's famous phrase, but a path of sanctity and a true virtue.

That said, it is as wrong to reduce sacramentalism to emotion in order to celebrate it as to criticize it, and reducing things to emotion is a mistake Rod makes again and again.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Bubba said...

I have no problem with practicing the presence of God as Brother Lawrence described it. But, if I remember correctly, he did so in the kitchen he was in. He didn't try to find a kitchen in which the mood was right.

I apologize if I gave the impression that an awareness of God's presence is something that impacts only the emotions. But I do think Rod is pursuing an awareness of Him as a thing to be felt, and it looks like we're on the same page in that regard.

That is the fool's errand, as one can no more feel God's presence constantly than one can feel constantly hungry or full, or happy or sad.

10:54 AM  
Blogger John C. Hathaway said...

1. As soon as you spoke of not liking poetry, you lost me. As much as I like C. S. Lewis, his poetry is lousy. Let's put it this way: I hate football (both kinds). I'll be glad to tell you all the reasons I cant' stand football, in general, with some specific examples. But I would never presume then, on the premise of hating all football, to offer a critique of any single football game.

2. The poem is not condemning shoes. Hopkins' "point" is merely that: a) nature is beautiful and b) man pollutes nature, yet, c) despite the fact that man pollutes it, nature is still beautiful. Therefore, God's in charge.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Bubba said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Bubba said...

John, I didn't say I didn't like poetry; I said that generally I'm not a huge fan. There are some poems I liked: in addition to the "lousy" C.S. Lewis, I listed a few poems by Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Omar Khayyam, names which apparently hold no meaning for you, unless you were cherry-picking one poet to discredit my tastes in poetry.

You hate football; does that make you incapable of understanding its rules? Or of understanding the outcome of a game by looking at its score?

If a poem can be understood -- if not appreciated -- only by a lover of all poetry, is that something for which the poet should be commended?


As I made clear, I didn't think the poem criticized shoes alone: it was critical of humanity, commerce, and modernity. On that point I believe I'm right, and on that point I don't think you really disagree, as you write that the poem condemns man for polluting nature.

3:59 PM  
Blogger John C. Hathaway said...

I'm not saying you have to be a "lover of all poetry." I'm saying that you have to appreciate poetry as such, which you say you don't. I'm not discounting Shakespeare, Tennyson, etc., but the highlighting of Lewis as a favorite poet says something.

I am not "incapable" of understanding the rules of football. I just have no interest in them. My point is that, if I say, "I have no interest in football, but I thought that was a lousy game," I'm stating what is, from my estabilshed premise, a matter of tautology.

To say, "I generally am not a huge fan" still gets to the point. You're not a "poetry person." You know what you like and dislike. That's fine. But you disqualify yourself as a critic.

Someone says, "I really don't care for classical music in general, but I like Beethoven's 9th Symphony." Then the person proceeds to offer his critique of Mozart's Alleluia.
It's not that he has to like *all* classical music, but he must at least have a taste for it. He must at least have a general idea of what classical music is supposed to be, in the objective sense, and not just what he personally likes about some classical music.
And if he's already categorized what he *does* like, singling out one work in a different category and "critiquing" it is an exercise in nonsense.

"I only like Baroque architecture. . . . Notre Dame is a lousy Cathedral because. . . ."
"I'm not a big fan of mysteries, but I like _Monk_. The fourth episode of _Matlock_ is stupid because. . . . "

As for the rest, I take it you think pollution is good?

5:54 PM  
Blogger Bubba said...

I take it you hate the modernity that allows you to post a comments on a blog rather than worry about plagues and famines?


I'll have you notice that I did not say that the poem was either good or bad. I didn't try to evaluate its quality as a poem per se but to understand what message it was conveying.

Are you seriously suggesting that a person who admits liking few poems is thus disqualified from even understanding a poem's content?

What horseshit.

6:20 PM  
Blogger John C. Hathaway said...

And the use of obscenity adds what to your argument, other than mortal sin?

You keep making straw men. I am asserting that you cannot critique something without having some grounds for your critique. Mere mockery is insufficient.

Did I say anything about modernity?

I have a genetic disorder. If I were born 100 years ago, I'd be dead now.

Technology is great. Modernity as a philosophical concept is not.

Hating pollution does not make one anti-technology or anti-modern.

And perhaps you need to reread Gen. 3. Earth would not be "smeared" with man's toil if there had never been original sin.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Bubba said...

Obscenity -- not profanity, not taking the Lord's name in vain, not even insults directed to an individual person, but mere obscenity -- is a mortal sin? Riiiight.


Look, John, I well understand the source of man's need to toil; I just question the idea that such toil obscures God's presence or rule.

It's not just that, as you want to suggest, Hopkins was critical of pollution. He was critical of much more than that.

"Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod."

It takes a very narrow reading to see all that as nothing more than a condemnation of pollution.


And while I agree that a critique must be based on something more than mere mockery, I contend that I offered more than that. Rather than attempt to correct my analysis of the poem's meaning -- its meaning, not its value -- you seem determined to disqualify me from even offering my view on what the poem means.

That attempt strikes me as incredibly silly.

5:55 AM  
Blogger Intellectual Pariah said...

If you're not big on poetry, steer clear of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He's a difficult poet.

1:15 PM  
Blogger John C. Hathaway said...

'Obscenity -- not profanity, not taking the Lord's name in vain, not even insults directed to an individual person, but mere obscenity -- is a mortal sin? Riiiight."
Yes. It's an offense against the Fifth Commandment, dishonoring the body, which is made in God's image and likeness. At least according to Fr. Corapi.

In any case, it's an offense against good language.

In any case, poetry is not supposed to have "meaning" that can be expressed in prose. If it can be expressed easily in prose, it's a bad poem.

Hopkins is criticizing what Fallen Man has done to God's creation. A good example is an internet "joke" I saw a few years ago about God looking down and asking St. Francis why we ripped out all His beautiful trees and shrubs to replace them with grass--which we then mow to keep short, but fertilize and water to keep "healthy," wasting natural resources as we go.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Bubba said...

Pariah, I'll take your suggestion under advisement, but this poem, at least, did not strike me as unfathomable.

John, I'm not sure how an obscenity for equine excrement dishonors the human body, nor was I aware that Corapi was an infallible judge whose pronouncements on sin cannot be questioned.

I'll certainly admit that obscenities are, generally, not the best expression of language, but that's worlds away from a mortal sin.

In any case, poetry is not supposed to have "meaning" that can be expressed in prose. If it can be expressed easily in prose, it's a bad poem.

That is, first of all, a contentious claim. Who decided this about poetry? Is this another pronouncement from on high by Corapi?

Second of all, the assertion is disproved by your attempt to express the poem's meaning in prose: "Hopkins is criticizing what Fallen Man has done to God's creation."

That sentence is prose, and it explains what you believe Hopkins' poem means. Does that mean the poem is a bad one?


Or are you just not thinking coherently, trying to dismiss what I believe the poem means by saying that poems have no meaning (or "meaning"), then immediately trying to explain what the poem actually means?

2:34 PM  
Blogger John C. Hathaway said...

What I'm saying is that poem can and should have several meanings.

So, let's see, I give my source for one thing and you then just attack my source. Now you want my source on another.

In any case, T. S. Eliot, whom I'm sure you've already confined to the netherworld with all the excrement you like to talk about. Read "Tradition and the Individual Talent."

In any case, I imagine I can merely go on my own credentials for this one, since, given your disdain for both poetry and language, I'm guessing my credentials as a literary critic (MA, two conference presentations, 1 published review) can stand on their own merits.

It is possible to state a theme or attempt to state the meaning of a poem in prose. However, that definition cannot be exhaustive. Certainly, you cannot base your dismissal of a poem on a personal opinion of its "meaning" and your belief that that interpretation is "correct."

A poem is much more than a moral or a meaning.

But I had never intended this to drag on. My original point made perfect sense, and my reiteration of it did, too. Had you merely offered your opinion of Hopkins, that would have been fine.

However, you prefaced the opinion by stating that you dislike poetry in general, and listed, as examples of what you do like, simplistic narrative poetry like Lewis's and Tennyson's or a Shakespearean soliloquys. Despite your seeming inability to engage in rational dialogue, you are too rationalist to like poetry for its own sake and only like what you can easily transfer into prose.

When you come across something more complex, like Hopkins, you find the most easy "theme" you can pull out of it, then dismiss why you hate the theme. That's called a Straw Man.

I neither know nor care why you have such an axe to grind with Rod Dreher. But just because Dreher happens to cite Hopkins, you attack one of the greatest Catholic poets in the English language. At that, I take humbrage.

But since you have proven yourself incapable of using anything but Straw Men, ad hominems and profanity to defend your position, I bow out.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Bubba said...

Oh, I see: you're an academic who resents amateurs daring to tread on your turf; you personally adore Hopkins, "one of the greatest Catholic poets in the English language," -- who knew that Hopkins was so complex while the poetry of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE was so simplistic? -- so you go apoplectic when someone expresses any opinion about him that isn't orgasmic; and you're just the sort of literary snob who can't use words like "meaning" and "correct" without surrounding them in scare quotes.

Add to that the false accusation of ad hominem attacks, your vacillation over whether a poem can have no meanings or multiple meanings, and the frankly weird idea that I should blindly accept from you the declaration that use of the word "horseshit" is a mortal sin, and I see in your thinking little more than a muddled mess.

If rational dialogue between us is not possible, that might not be entirely my fault.

10:20 AM  
Blogger kathleen said...

"I'm guessing my credentials as a literary critic (MA, two conference presentations, 1 published review) can stand on their own merits."

John C. Hathaway, you won't get far as a "literary critic" without a PhD and only 1 published review.

and FYI, it's "umbrage".

4:27 PM  

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