Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Helen C. White, Part 2

During another interesting passage from the introduction to Drink from the Rock, White compares the writing of poetry to prayer, both “how they are alike and the ways in which they are different.”

For the first, they belong to the same realm, to the realm of contemplation. Both are based on the recognition of a reality in which truth and beauty have, to put it as generally as possible, very intimate relations. From the point of view of Spirit both are concerned primarily with the God Who is to be worshipped both in truth and beauty.

Her reference to “truth and beauty” recalls the final lines to Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Keats wasn't working from a Christian framework; the charge is probably even greaterwhen truth and beauty are meant to represent God and His creation. But that's Maturin territory, and I should probably save that for later.

As for the differences she identifies:

But the techniques of prayer and poetry are different, and their objectives are different. A great prayer may be a great poem, as the hymns of the Church like the Dies Irae and the Stabat Mater so well demonstrate. But two separate and distinct kinds of excellence have gone in their making.

I wish she said more about what kinds of excellence go into each, but I suppose one difference relates to the fact that a prayer can be a powerful, efficacious prayer without being original or even eloquent -- the spirit of the prayer-giver is what makes the difference. On the other hand, there's nothing worse than an earnest unoriginal poet.

Not only are there similarities between poetry and prayer, but poetry can also benefit from prayer. And I don't mean that one can become a great poet by begging God for help breaking through writer's block. The form of prayer can inspire great poetic innovations...In The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845–1961, Ian Ker argues pretty convincingly that Hopkins's sprung rhythm was influenced by the litany.

(Pedants among you will have noticed that when I quoted Keats, I closed the internal quotation at “truth beauty” -- there is some controversy as to whether the quotation should actually run through the end of the poem, so that the urn, not the speaker, says “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Either way, a loquacious vase.)

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