Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category


The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

April 4, 2014
Icon of Second Coming (also used for All Saints Sunday). Christ is enthroned in the center surrounded by the angels and saints, Paradise is at the bottom, with the Bosom of Abraham (left) and the Good Thief (right) holding his cross. Circa 1700.

Icon of Second Coming (also used for All Saints Sunday). Christ is enthroned in the center surrounded by the angels and saints, Paradise is at the bottom, with the Bosom of Abraham (left) and the Good Thief (right) holding his cross. Circa 1700.

The Second Coming is a poem composed by Irish poet W. B. Yeats in 1919, first printed in The Dial in November 1920, and afterwards included in his 1921 collection of verses Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The poem uses Christian imagery regarding the Apocalypse and second coming allegorically to describe the atmosphere of post-war Europe. The poem is considered a major work of Modernist poetry and has been reprinted in several collections, including The Norton Anthology of Modernist Poetry.

The version of the poem here is as it was published in the edition of Michael Robartes and the Dancer dated 1920 (there are numerous other versions of the poem). The preface and notes in the book contain some philosphy attributed to Robartes. This printing of the poem has a page break between lines 17 and 18 making the stanza division unclear.

Following the two most similar drafts given in the Parkinson and Brannen edited edition of the manuscripts, I have put a stanza break there. (Interestingly, both of those drafts have thirty centuries instead of twenty.) The earlier drafts also have references to the French and Irish Revolutions as well as to Germany and Russia.

Several of the lines in the version above differ from those found in subsequent versions. In listing it as one of the hundred most anthologized poems in the English language, the text given by Harmon (1998) has changes including: line 13 (“: somewhere in sands of the desert”), line 17 (“Reel” instead of “Wind”), and no break between the second and third stanza.



Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?



‘Wilfred Owen’ by Guy Cuthbertson — A Review by Ferdinand Mount

April 3, 2014
Shrewsbury Abbey: Owen's mother opened the War Office telegram informing her of his death as the church bells rang out for the Armistice.

Shrewsbury Abbey: Owen’s mother opened the War Office telegram informing her of his death as the church bells rang out for the Armistice.

Wilfred Owen had an unquenchable gaiety. He said himself, ‘you would not know me for the poet of sorrows.’ Mr. Mount’s books include “Cold Cream” and “The New Few, or a Very British Oligarchy.”


When Wilfred Owen discovered that Shelley used to visit the sick and poor of the Thames Valley, he was overjoyed: “I knew the lives of men who produced such marvelous verse could not be otherwise than lovely.” This is not the usual view. There are too many cases of great poets who were selfish, cold and cadging, indifferent to the welfare of their nearest and dearest — Percy Bysshe Shelley himself not excluded. But Wilfred Owen was a lovely man.

His life was as short as Keats’s. They both died at the age of 25, but their lives feel shorter still, because these slight, bright-eyed men come across as so incurably youthful. Owen had a special affinity for children of all ages, and he thought that any true poet ought to be childish. “Now, what’s your Poet, but a child of nine?” he once asked.

But, like Keats, whom he worshiped, Owen also had a sharp intelligence and a searing wit, which makes the reader jump out of any sentimental reverie. His verse is intensely realistic and direct. And so are his letters. Guy Cuthbertson, author of the latest biography of Owen, rightly says that the letters achieve “Matthew Arnold’s aim for literature, that it should see the object in itself as it really is.” There is no English poet, except Keats again, whose letters I would rather have by my bedside.

It is a pity then that Mr. Cuthbertson does not quote as copiously from them as did the poet Jon Stallworthy in his wonderful 1974 life of Owen. Instead Mr. Cuthbertson tends to wander off into digressions on other writers and artists who don’t really seem to have much do with Owen. In the space of two pages discussing Owen’s teaching English in France in 1913-14, he gives us little riffs on Joyce in Berlin, Toulouse-Lautrec in Bordeaux and Isherwood in Berlin. Elsewhere we are told about the painter Augustus John’s concussion, W.H. Auden’s ideal college for bards and a character called “Mr. Owen” in a novel by Agatha Christie. I’d prefer more of the poet and less of this motley cast.

Wilfred Owen was born in 1893, the son of a stationmaster on the Welsh borders. Mr. Cuthbertson seems keen to prove that Owen was not really Welsh at all, although his name and his short stature suggest otherwise. Besides, at Oswestry, Shrewsbury and Liverpool, where he was brought up and educated at unremarkable schools, he was surrounded by Welshmen who had spilled over the borders. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to see something Welsh, too, about his flaring-up and forgiving nature and the easy way he made friends when he wanted to, although his temperament was shy and naturally aloof.

Owen was certainly resentful about the start in life he was dealt. Mr. Cuthbertson rightly points out that few writers want to be lower-middle-class — especially if they feel, as the Owens did, that they had come down in the world since Wilfred’s grandfather had lived in a big house and served as mayor of Oswestry. It was “a terrible regret” for Wilfred that he did not go to Oxford instead of Reading, a dim college that was scarcely yet a university.

But even his complaints of his modest origins were partly playful, as was his father Tom’s occasional claim that he was really a baronet in disguise. And his family was not without artistic ambition or talent. His father had a fine operatic tenor, his mother loved art galleries, and his brother became an artist and a writer too. Owen had an unquenchable gaiety that made people seek his company. He said himself, “you would not know me for the poet of sorrows.”

Was he gay in the modern sense, and how relevant was this to his life as a poet? Gay-ish, and not very, Mr. Cuthbertson suggests, and convincingly so. The impression he gave to his friends was virginal, even sexless. There is no doubt that the most important thing in his life, apart from poetry, was his mother, Susan, to whom he wrote unceasingly: “I stand (yes and sit, lie, kneel & walk, too,) in need of some tangible caress from you . . . my affections are physical as well as abstract — intensely so.”

She certainly mothered, if not smothered, her eldest son. Well into his teens, she was still peeling his apples for him. Yet Owen did not feel short of experience. He said before he joined the army in 1915: “I know I have lived more than my twenty-one years, many more; and so have a start of most lives.”

He had not volunteered with alacrity. In fact, he was tempted to dawdle on at Bordeaux, where he was teaching. Rather than being keen to make the supreme sacrifice, “I feel my own life all the more precious and more dear in the presence of this deflowering of Europe.”

But join up he did, and he turned himself into a popular and efficient officer with the same brisk dispatch that he had mastered the techniques of verse — and added a few of his own, notably those slithery half-rhymes that give his elegies such a haunting quality (leaves/lives, ferns/fauns, cauldron/children). From the start, he had none of the illusions that are romantically attributed to war poets: “I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious.”

It is impossible to read a life of Owen, as it is a life of Keats, without coming close to tears. And Mr. Cuthbertson’s heart is in the right place. But he seems strangely eager to hurry over those tragic last two years as if they were too much for him. There were three momentous episodes in Owen’s war service in France: when he was blown up at St. Quentin in April 1917 and invalided home with shellshock; then, after his return to France in September 1918, when he won the Military Cross in a ferocious hand-to-hand attack at Joncourt; and finally, on Nov. 4 that year, when he was killed leading his company across the Ors Canal under relentless shell and machine-gun fire.

Up to the very last, Owen described all this with his unforgettable candor and vivacity in his letters, while the military archives make clear in detail just how suicidal the missions were. Unfortunately, each time Mr. Cuthbertson telescopes what happened into a couple of sentences. Here’s a snatch of what we are missing, from an Oct. 8, 1918, letter to his mother:

All one day we could not move from a small trench, though hour by hour the wounded were groaning just outside. Three stretcher-bearers who got up were hit, one after one. I had to order no one to show himself after that, but remembering my own duty, and remembering also my forefathers the agile Welshmen of the mountains I scrambled out myself & felt an exhilaration in baffling the Machine Guns by quick bounds from cover to cover. After the shells we had been through, and the gas, bullets were like the gentle rain from heaven.

The news of his death reached his parents at noon on the day the Armistice was declared. The bells were still ringing in the local church when the little chimes at the Owens’ front door announced the fatal telegram.

Anthem for Doomed Youth — Wilfred Owen 1893–1918

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

 What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Arms and the Boy — Wilfred Owen
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

 Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

 For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

Wilfred Owen’s orisons are still ringing in our heads.


Why I Love You, O Mary ! — Saint Thérèse Of Lisieux

April 2, 2014
With you I’ve suffered and now I want To sing on your lap, Mary, why I love you,

With you I’ve suffered and now I want To sing on your lap, Mary, why I love you,

Biography St Therese of Lisieux — Tejvan Pettinger
From an early age it was Therese’s ambition and desire to be a saint. She was born into a pious and loving Catholic family. She remembers the idyll of her early childhood, spending time with her parents and 5 sisters in the un spoilt French countryside. However this early childhood idyll was broken by the early death of her Mother (from breast cancer). Aged only 4 years old, she felt the pain of separation and instinctively turned to the Virgin Mary for comfort and reassurance.

The next couple of years of St Therese’s’ life was a period of inner turmoil. She was unhappy at school, where her natural precociousness and piety, made other school children jealous. Eventually her father agreed for Therese to return home and be taught by her elder sister, Celine.

She enjoyed being taught at home, however after a while, her eldest sister made a decision to leave to enter the local Carmel Convent at Lisieux. This made Therese feel like she had lost her second mother. Shortly afterwards Therese experienced a painful illness, in which she suffered delusions. The doctors were at a loss as to the cause. For 3 weeks she suffered with a high fever. Eventually Therese felt completely healed after her sister’s placed a statue of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the bed. Therese felt her health and mental state returned to normal very quickly.

Soon after on Christmas Eve 1884, she recounts having a remarkable conversion of spirit. She says she lost her inclination to please herself with her own desires. Instead she felt a burning desire to pray for the souls of others and forget herself. She says that on this day, she lost her childhood immaturity and felt a very strong calling to enter the convent at the unprecedented early age of 15.

St Therese with Pope
Initially the Church authorities refused to allow a girl, who was so young to enter holy orders. They advised her to come back when she was 21 and “grown up”. However Therese’s mind was made up, she couldn’t bear to wait, she felt God was calling her to enter the cloistered life. Therese was so determined she travelled to the Vatican to personally petition the Pope. Breaking protocol she spoke to the Pope asking for permission to enter a convent. Soon after, her heart’s desire was fulfilled, and she was able to join her 2 sisters in the Carmelite convent of Lisieux.

Convent life was not without its hardships; it was cold and accommodation was basic. Not all sisters warmed to this 15-year-old girl. At times she became the subject of gossip, one of her superiors took a very hash attitude to this young “spoilt middle class” girl. However Therese sought always to respond to criticism and gossip with the attitude of love. No matter what others said Therese responded by denying her sense of ego. Eventually the nun who had criticized Therese so much said. “why do you always smile at me, Why are you always so kind, even when I treat you badly”

Love attracts love, mine rushes forth unto Thee, it would fain fill up the abyss which attracts it; but alas! it is not even as one drop of dew lost in the Ocean. To love Thee as Thou lovest me I must borrow Thy very Love – then only, can I find rest.
- St Therese

This was the “little way” which Therese sought to follow. Her philosophy was that; what was important was not doing great works, but doing little things with the power of love. If we can maintain the right attitude then nothing shall remain that can’t be accomplished. St Therese was encouraged by the elder nuns to ask her to write down her way of spiritual practice. She wrote 3 books that explained her “little way” and also included her personal spiritual autobiography.

“The good God does not need years to accomplish His work of love in a soul; one ray from His Heart can, in an instant, make His flower bloom for eternity…”
- St Therese

St Therese died tragically early at the age of 24 from Tuberculosis. However after her death, the writings became avidly read by, first other nuns, and then the wider Catholic community. Although initially intended only for a small audience her books have been frequently republished. In 1997, St Therese was declared one of the only 3 female Doctors of the Catholic Church (there are 33 doctors of the church in total). Thus after her death she was able to achieve her intuitive feeling that she would be able to do something great and help save souls.

St Therese was canonized by Pope Pius XI on May 17, 1925, only 26 years after her death.


Oh ! I would like to sing, Mary, why I loveyou,
Whyyour sweet name thrills my heart,
And why the thought of your supreme greatness
Could not bring fear to my soul.
If I gazed on you in your sublime glory,
Surpassing the splendor of all the blessed,
I could not believe that I am your child.
O Mary, before you I would lower my eyes !…


If a child is to cherish his mother,
She has to cry with him and share his sorrows.
O my dearest Mother, on this foreign shore
How many tears you shed to draw me to you !…
In pondering your life in the holy Gospels,
I dare look at you and come near you.
It’s not difficult for me to believe I’m your child,
For I see you human and suffering like me…


When an angel from Heaven bids you be the Mother
O the God who is to reign for all eternity,
I see you prefer, O Mary, what a mystery !
The ineffable treasure of virginity.
O Immaculate Virgin, I understand how your soul
Is dearer to the Lord than his heavenly dwelling.
I understand how your soul, Humble and Sweet Valley,
Can contain Jesus, the Ocean of Love !…


Oh ! I loveyou, Mary, saying you are the servant
Of the God whom you charm by your humility.
This hidden virtue makes you all-powerful.
It attracts the Holy Trinity into your heart.
Then the Spirit of Love covering you with his shadow,
The Son equal to the Father became incarnate in you,
There will be a great many of his sinner brothers,
Since he will be called : Jesus, your first-born !…


O beloved Mother, despite my littleness,
Like you I possess The All-Powerful within me.
But I don’t tremble in seeing my weakness ;
The treasures of a mother belong to her child,
And I am your child, O my dearest Mother.
Aren’t your virtues and yourlove mine too ?
So when the white Host comes into my heart,
Jesus, your Sweet Lamb, thinks he is resting in you !…


You make me feel that it’s not impossible
To follow in your footsteps, O Queen of the elect.
You made visible the narrow road to Heaven
While always practicing the humblest virtues.
Near you, Mary, I like to stay little.
I see the vanity of greatness here below.
At the home of Saint Elizabeth, receiving your visit,
I learn how to practice ardent charity.

There, Sweet Queen of angels, I listen, delighted,
To the sacred canticle springing forth from your heart.
You teach me to sing divine praises,
To glory in Jesus my Savior.
Your words of love are mystical roses
Destined to perfume the centuries to come.
In you the Almighty has done great things.
I want to ponder them to bless him for them.

When good Saint Joseph did not know of the miracle
That you wanted to hide in your humility,
You let him cry close by the Tabernacle
Veiling the Savior’s divine beauty !…

Oh Mary ! how I loveyour eloquent silence !
For me it is a sweet, melodious concert
That speaks to me of the greatness and power
Of a soul which looks only to Heaven for help…

Later in Bethlehem, O Joseph and Mary !
I see you rejected by all the villagers.
No one wants to take in poor foreigners.
There’s room for the great ones…
There’s room for the great ones, and it’s in a stable
That the Queen of Heaven must give birth to a God.
O my dearest Mother, how lovable I find you,
How great I find you in such a poor place !…


When I see the Eternal God wrapped in swaddling clothes,
When I hear the poor cry of the Divine Word,
O my dearest Mother, I no longer envy the angels,
For their Powerful Lord is my dearest Brother !…
How I loveyou, Mary, you who made
This Divine Flower blossom on our shores !…
How I loveyou listening to the shepherds and wisemen
And keeping it all in your heart with care !…


I loveyou mingling with the other women
Walking toward the holy temple.
I loveyou presenting the Savior of our souls
To the blessed Old Man who pressed Him to his heart.
At first I smile as I listen to his canticle,
But soon his tone makes me shed tears.
Plunging a prophetic glance into the future,
Simeon presents you with a sword of sorrows.


O Queen of martyrs, till the evening of your life
That sorrowful sword will pierce your heart.
Already you must leave your native land
To flee a king’s jealous fury.
Jesus sleeps in peace under the folds of your veil.
Joseph comes begging you to leave at once,
And at once your obedience is revealed.
You leave without delay or reasoning.


O Mary, it seems to me that in the land of Egypt
Your heart remains joyful in poverty,
For is not Jesus the fairest Homeland,
What does exile matter to you ? You hold Heaven…
But in Jerusalem a bitter sadness
Comes to flood your heart like a vast ocean.
For three days, Jesus hides from your tenderness.
That is indeed exile in all its harshness !…


At last you find him and you are overcome with joy,
You say to the fair Child captivating the doctors :
“O my Son, why have you done this ?
Your father and I have been searching for you in tears.”
And the Child God replies (O what a deep mystery !)
To his dearest Mother holding out her arms to him :
“Why were you searching for me ?
I must be about My Father’s business. Didn’t you know ?”


The Gospel tells me that, growing in wisdom,
Jesus remains subject to Joseph and Mary,
And my heart reveals to me with what tenderness
He always obeys his dear parents.
Now I understand the mystery of the temple,
The hidden words of my Lovable King.
Mother, your sweet Child wants you to be the example
Of the soul searching for Him in the night of faith.


Since the King of Heaven wanted his Mother
To be plunged into the night, in anguish of heart,
Mary, is it thus a blessing to suffer on earth ?
Yes, to suffer while loving is the purest happiness !…
All that He has given me, Jesus can take back.
Tell him not to bother with me…
He can indeed hide from me, I’m willing to wait for him
Till the day without sunset when my faith will fade away…


Mother full of grace, I know that in Nazareth
You live in poverty, wanting nothing more.
No rapture, miracle, or ecstasy
Embellish your life, O Queen of the Elect !…
The number of little ones on earth is truly great.
They can raise their eyes to you without trembling.
It’s by the ordinary way, incomparable Mother,
That you like to walk to guide them to Heaven.


While waiting for Heaven, O my dear Mother,
I want to live with you, to follow you each day.
Mother, contemplating you, I joyfully immerse myself,
Discovering in your heart abysses of love.
Your motherly gaze banishes all my fears.
It teaches me to cry, it teaches me to rejoice.
Instead of scorning pure and simple joys,
You want to share in them, you deign to bless them.


At Cana, seeing the married couple’s anxiety
Which they cannot hide, for they have run out of wine,
In your concern you tell the Savior,
Hoping for the help of his divine power.
Jesus seems at first to reject your prayer :
« Woman, what does this matter, » he answers, « to you and to me ? »
But in the depths of his heart, He calls you his Mother,
And he works his first miracle for you…


One day when sinners are listening to the doctrine
Of Him who would like to welcome them in Heaven,
Mary, I find you with them on the hill.
Someone says to Jesus that you wish to see him.
Then, before the whole multitude, your Divine Son
Shows us the immensity of his love for us.
He says : “Who is my brother and my sister and my Mother,
If not the one who does my will ?”


O Immaculate Virgin, most tender of Mothers,
In listening to Jesus, you are not saddened.
But you rejoice that He makes us understand
How our souls become his family here below.
Yes, you rejoice that He gives us his life,
The infinite treasures of his divinity !…
How can we not loveyou, O my dear Mother,
On seeing so much love and so much humility ?


Youlove us, Mary, as Jesus loves us,
And for us you accept being separated from Him.
To love is to give everything. It’s to give oneself.
You wanted to prove this by remaining our support.
The Savior knew your immense tenderness.
He knew the secrets of your maternal heart.
Refuge of sinners, He leaves us to you
When He leaves the Cross to wait for us in Heaven.


Mary, at the top of Calvary standing beside the Cross
To me you seem like a priest at the altar,
Offering yourbeloved Jesus, the sweet Emmanuel,
To appease the Father’s justice…
A prophet said, O afflicted Mother,
“There is no sorrow like your sorrow !
” O Queen of Martyrs, while remaining in exile
You lavish on us all the blood of your heart !


Saint John’s home becomes your only refuge.
Zebedee’s son is to replace Jesus…
That is the last detail the Gospel gives.
It tells me nothing more of the Queen of Heaven.
But, O my dear Mother, doesn’t its profound silence
Reveal that The Eternal Word Himself
Wants to sing the secrets of your life
To charm your children, all the Elect of Heaven ?


Soon I’ll hear that sweet harmony.
Soon I’ll go to beautiful Heaven to see you.
You who came to smile at me in the morning of my life,
Come smile at me again … Mother… It’s evening now !…
I no longer fear the splendor of your supreme glory.
With you I’ve suffered and now I want
To sing on your lap, Mary, why I loveyou,
And to go on saying that I am your child !…



The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz 2 by Jeremy Driscoll

March 19, 2014
Non-Catholics often worry about an excessive Catholic devotion to Mary, and in some cases the worry is justified; but in Catholic teaching and tradition”and here Milosz is typically Catholic in making Mary his last reference”Mary, though beautiful in herself, leads us first and last to Christ, who is beautiful even in his dying. He is the Beauty that will save the world.

Non-Catholics often worry about an excessive Catholic devotion to Mary, and in some cases the worry is justified; but in Catholic teaching and tradition”and here Milosz is typically Catholic in making Mary his last reference”Mary, though beautiful in herself, leads us first and last to Christ, who is beautiful even in his dying. He is the Beauty that will save the world.

Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., is a Benedictine monk at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. He teaches theology both at Mount Angel Seminary and the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome. This is a reblog from First Things.


When in the Treatise Milosz refers to his own practices as a Catholic, he speaks with a remarkable humility, contrasting his own weakness with the strength of the communion to which he belongs. This humility is especially striking since Milosz was, by temperament, a proud man, as he himself often acknowledged. His fine mind and his natural sophistication caused him to hesitate before the requirements of faith. But in the end he rejected the option of turning his sophistication against more simple believers. Near the very beginning of the Treatise he states, “The opposition, I versus they, seemed immoral. / It meant he [Milosz] considered himself better than they were.”

At the end, having agonized through much of the poem over the questions posed by his gnostic favorites, he comes back much more strongly to a defense of the categories of Christian worship. “Treat with understanding persons of weak faith. // Myself included,” he writes. “One day I believe, another I disbelieve. // Yet I feel warmth among people at prayer. / Since they believe, they help me to believe / in their existence, these incomprehensible beings . . . // Naturally, I am a skeptic. Yet I sing with them, / thus overcoming the contradiction / between my private religion and the religion of the rite.”

This confession repeats a theme that Milosz has accented frequently in his poetry. Let three poems suffice as examples. In one he speaks approvingly of “Helene’s Religion”: “On Sunday I go to church and pray with all the others. / Who am I to think I am different?” And yet, familiar disappointment in the Church rises to the surface as Helene says, “Enough that I don’t listen to what the priests blabber in their sermons. / Otherwise, I would have to concede that I reject common sense.” Then, speaking for and with Milosz himself, she continues: “I have tried to be a faithful daughter of my Roman Catholic Church. / I recite the Our Father, the Credo and Hail Mary / Against my abominable unbelief.” Here the solid regularity of Catholic practice faces down Milosz’s reflexive skepticism.

In “With Her” Milosz speaks of hearing a passage from Scripture during Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley: “A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom / About how God has not made death / And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.” We should not be surprised that the words catch his attention. They directly address the key question that he and the gnostics often posed: how to reconcile death and innocent suffering with the notion of a good God.

The poem continues: “A reading from the Gospel according to Mark / About a little girl to whom He said: ‘Talitha, cumi!’” Then, with an unselfconscious humility, the poet witnesses to how he has received these words. He writes, “This is for me. To make me rise from the dead / And repeat the hope of those who lived before me.” Here Milosz is exactly a Christian” the scriptural word is received as a word for him in that moment, together with all those who have believed before him. The theological term for this is “communion of saints.”

The poem “In a Parish” can serve as a third example of Milosz’s understanding of Catholic practice. He begins, “Had I not been frail and half broken inside, / I wouldn’t think of them, who are like myself half broken inside. / I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church / To get rid of my self-pity.” Here again is Milosz involved in Catholic practice, the visiting of cemeteries being an especially strong part of Polish Catholicism. But he is also bringing to explicit expression what is implicit in any Christian gathering, whether among the living or the dead”namely, the recognition that we are all frail and broken. This is, among other things, what brings Christians together across differences of background.

As Milosz looks at the names on the tombs, from his own “half broken inside” he begins to establish a communion with those buried there, musing ironically on the meanings of the names he reads: “Crazy Sophies, / Michaels who lost every battle, / Self-destructive Agathas.” When a child is born we name him or her with an uncomplicated hope. But then the child grows up and a sadder story must be told. Still, Milosz sees all these lives under the sign that, for a Christian, ultimately explains existence: they all “Lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death.” And in this moment the poet feels his vocation again. He asks, “And who / is going to express them? Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation?” Milosz does not answer this question in the poem, but his work as poet has always been to give voice to precisely this: all the sad, neglected stories of so many men and women.

But for Christian faith, under every cross and every sad story lies the hope of resurrection. It is this that Milosz ultimately expresses as he gives voice to the dead. The poem ends with him addressing them all: “Thus we go down into the earth, my fellow parishioners.” We may call this a sad story, but we should also note the communion expressed in going down to death with “fellows.” And how do we all go down? “With the hope that the trumpet of judgment will call us by our names.” Christian faith teaches that such a call will not summon us to some vague eternity. Instead, we shall be renewed as the particular persons we were meant to be, expressed mysteriously in our names, their deepest, truest meaning now revealed in the “judgment that will call us by our names.”

And this in the “new heavens and new earth” promised by the Scripture (2 Peter 3:13). And so Milosz concludes, “Instead of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds. / They rise then, thousands of Sophias, Michaels, Matthews, / Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews. / So that at last they know why / And for what reason?”

These three poems may help us to understand Milosz’s ultimate message in the Treatise ”namely, his choice to “sing with them,” his fellow Christians, despite the fact that he is naturally a skeptic, and despite his lengthy grappling with gnostic theories.

In the last stanza of the Treatise , Milosz addresses himself directly to the “Beautiful Lady, you who appeared to the children at Lourdes and Fatima.” Such a direct invocation involved a great risk; Milosz knew it might alienate many of his readers. They would wonder how such a serious writer could take seriously the Marian apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima.

Believing in the authenticity of such apparitions is not even a requirement of Catholic faith. And yet here is Milosz admitting, “I too have been a pilgrim in Lourdes / by the grotto,” and further, “Lady, I asked you for a miracle.” And if these revelations of common piety upset his nonreligious admirers, he, too, was somewhat upset by the experience: “My presence in such a place was disturbed / By my duty as a poet who should not flatter popular imaginings, / Yet who desires to remain faithful to your unfathomable intention / When you appeared to children at Fatima and Lourdes.”

We must take this as his last word in this long poem (that is in fact what it is). After rehearsing all his anguished questions and the gnostic solutions to which he had sometimes turned along the way, he finishes with a serene prayer to the Beautiful Lady and takes children as his model. He no longer demands a transparent solution to the problem of innocent suffering. Instead, he expresses a humbler aim: to remain faithful to the “unfathomable intention” of the mother of Christ.

Milosz had suggested earlier in this stanza that part of this intention has to do with beauty: “As if you wished to remind them that beauty is / one of the components of the world.” The Lady herself is beautiful, as is the place where she appears, “in Lourdes / by the grotto, where you hear the rustle of the river and, / in the pure blue sky above the mountains, a narrow scrap of moon.”

Milosz wished to bear witness to the great Christian insight about beauty, so memorably expressed by Dostoevsky: beauty will save the world. For Milosz this was not an insight arrived at late in life; the Treatise presents us with the mature version of what we already saw in the poetry he was writing during the darkest period of the Second World War: “Gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life.” As a young poet, Milosz knew that it was always the poet’s job to record and praise the world’s passing beauty. In the Treatise , the older Milosz reminds us that the poet receives this beauty from a permanent source beyond the world.

If this message about beauty was indeed part of the Lady’s intention, we might go on to ask whether her intention might ultimately concern the revelation of her Son as the secret of her own and the world’s beauty. After all, everything about Mary leads us in this direction. Non-Catholics often worry about an excessive Catholic devotion to Mary, and in some cases the worry is justified; but in Catholic teaching and tradition”and here Milosz is typically Catholic in making Mary his last reference”Mary, though beautiful in herself, leads us first and last to Christ, who is beautiful even in his dying. He is the Beauty that will save the world.


At a certain distance I followed behind you, ashamed to come closer.
Though you have chosen me as a worker in your vineyard and I pressed the grapes of your wrath.
To every one according to his nature: what is crippled should not always be healed.

I do not even know whether one can be free, for I have toiled against my will.
Taken by the neck like a boy who kicks and bites
Till they sit him at the desk and order him to make letters,

I wanted to be like others but was given the bitterness of separation,
Believed I would be an equal among equals but woke up a stranger.
Looking at manners as if I arrived from a different time.

Guilty of apostasy from the communal rite.
There are so many who are good and just, those were rightly chosen
And wherever you walk the earth, they accompany you.

Perhaps it is true that I loved you secretly
But without strong hope to be close to you as they are.

Czeslaw Milosz


The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz 1 by Jeremy Driscoll

March 18, 2014
“To put it very simply and bluntly, I must ask if I believe that the four Gospels tell the truth. My answer to this is: Yes. So I believe in an absurdity, that Jesus rose from the dead? Just answer without any of those evasions and artful tricks employed by theologians: Yes or No? I answer: Yes, and by that response I nullify death’s omnipotence. If I am mistaken in my faith, I offer it as a challenge to the Spirit of the Earth . . . .”

“To put it very simply and bluntly, I must ask if I believe that the four Gospels tell the truth. My answer to this is: Yes. So I believe in an absurdity, that Jesus rose from the dead? Just answer without any of those evasions and artful tricks employed by theologians: Yes or No? I answer: Yes, and by that response I nullify death’s omnipotence. If I am mistaken in my faith, I offer it as a challenge to the Spirit of the Earth . . . .”

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., is a Benedictine monk at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. He teaches theology both at Mount Angel Seminary and the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome.


Czeslaw Milosz was born in Szetejnie in 1911 and raised in Wilno, both of which are in present-day Lithuania. His family was part of the large Polish-speaking population of that city. For this reason he identified himself as a Polish writer. Living there through his university education, he was present in 1939 when the Soviets invaded Lithuania, while Hitler simultaneously invaded Poland. At great personal risk, he escaped through the Soviet borders and worked for the Polish resistance in Warsaw throughout the war.

Once the war had ended, he tried to make a life for himself in his own nation and was part of the diplomatic corps of Communist Poland’s postwar government. He was posted to the consulate in New York and the embassy in Washington. In 1951, while he was serving as the cultural attaché at the Polish embassy in Paris, he defected.

He remained in France until 1960, when he took a position at the University of California, Berkeley, as a professor of Slavic literature. In 1980, at the age of seventy, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Having lived in exile for fifty years, he moved from the United States to Krakow in 2001 and died there this summer at the age of ninety-three. He had remained productive until the end; a final book of poems, Second Space, is being published in English this fall.

This bare-bones summary of his life shows that Milosz’s personal history included almost the whole of the twentieth century. He participated in some of its most dramatic episodes and lived within several of its colliding cultures, carving out homes in Lithuania, Poland, France, and the United States. These are the contexts in which his Christian vision was shaped and delivered.

Although he often expressed this vision obliquely, he was relentless in his criticism of those who despised faith as an anachronism: “I am not afraid to say that a devout and God-fearing man is superior as a human specimen to a restless mocker who is glad to style himself an ‘intellectual,’ proud of his cleverness in using ideas which he claims as his own though he acquired them in a pawnshop in exchange for simplicity of heart . . . .

The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions.” Milosz believed that the role of the poet is crucial in any society”regardless of how little poetry is appreciated or its importance understood. Consider his apologia for the poetry he was writing during and after World War II, when the world was undergoing a shock and disillusionment perhaps unparalleled in human history. How should the poet react? Here is Milosz’s proposal:

As is well known, the philosopher Adorno said that it would be an abomination to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz, and the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas gave the year 1941 as the date when God “abandoned” us. Whereas I wrote idyllic verses, “The World” and a number of others, in the very center of what was taking place in the anus mundi , and not by any means out of ignorance . . . . Life does not like death. The body, as long as it is able to, sets in opposition to death the heart’s contractions and the warmth of circulating blood. Gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life; they are the body’s rebellion against its destruction.

To retain simplicity of heart, to write verses for life against death”these gentle-sounding goals are not achieved without cost or without a sustaining faith. Yet here it is necessary to remind ourselves of the paradoxical way in which faith is practiced. Faith is practiced in the struggle with faith. Milosz had the courage to expose his struggle in all its intensity; thus the readers with whom he shared his troubles and doubts can trust, or at least consider with appropriate seriousness, his decision to stand within faith’s orbit.

In a 1959 letter to the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton, Milosz wrote, “As to my Catholicism, this is perhaps a subject for a whole letter. In any case few people suspect my basically religious interests and I have never been ranged among ‘Catholic writers.’ Which, strategically, is perhaps better. We are obliged to bear witness. But of what? That we pray to have faith? This problem”how much we should say openly”is always present in my thoughts.” Two things stand out in this candid letter. First, his careful consideration of how best to treat religious themes in his writing. Second, the depth of his humility and poverty before faith.

In one poem, he addresses God wryly, saying, “It seems to me that people who cannot believe in you / deserve your praise,” and he confesses later in the same poem, “I pray to you, for I do not know how not to pray.” This struggle spanned his entire life. Only a few years ago, feeling his age, he wrote, “Now You are closing down my five senses, slowly, / And I am an old man lying in darkness . . . / Liberate me from guilt, real and imagined. / Give me certainty that I toiled for Your glory. / In the hour of the agony of death, help me with Your suffering / Which cannot save the world from pain.”

In a piece written in 1991 he mused at length about the difficulty of sharing thoughts like these. “I feel obliged to speak the truth to my contemporaries and I feel ashamed if they take me to be someone who I am not. In their opinion, a person who ‘had faith’ is fortunate. They assume that as a result of certain inner experiences he was able to find an answer, while they know only questions. So how can I make a profession of faith in the presence of my fellow human beings? After all, I am one of them, seeking, as they do, the laws of inheritance, and I am just as confused . . . .”

But let us come to the content of what he believed: “To put it very simply and bluntly, I must ask if I believe that the four Gospels tell the truth. My answer to this is: Yes. So I believe in an absurdity, that Jesus rose from the dead? Just answer without any of those evasions and artful tricks employed by theologians: Yes or No? I answer: Yes, and by that response I nullify death’s omnipotence. If I am mistaken in my faith, I offer it as a challenge to the Spirit of the Earth . . . .

Later in the same piece he asked, “Ought I to try to explain ‘why I believe’? I don’t think so. It should suffice if I attempt to convey the coloring or tone. If I believed that man can do good with his own powers, I would have no interest in Christianity. But he cannot, because he is enslaved to his own predatory, domineering instincts . . . . Evil grows and bears fruit, which is understandable, because it has logic and probability on its side and also, of course, strength. The resistance of tiny kernels of good, to which no one grants the power of causing far-reaching consequences, is entirely mysterious, however. Such seeming nothingness not only lasts but contains within itself enormous energy which is revealed gradually. One can draw momentous conclusions from this.”

Milosz believed that the religious question ought to be explored in the mainstream of literature and culture. As he grew older, he used the authority he had acquired to challenge those of his colleagues who believed that discussions of religion were beneath their dignity. “To write on literature or art was considered an honorable occupation,” he wrote in 1997, “whereas any time notions taken from the language of religion appeared, the one who brought them up was immediately treated as lacking in tact, as if a silent pact had been broken. Yet I lived at a time when a huge change in the contents of the human imagination was occurring. In my lifetime Heaven and Hell disappeared, the belief in life after death was considerably weakened. How could I not think of this? And is it not surprising that my preoccupation was a rare case?”

Czeslaw Milosz stood apart as a poet who dared to be preoccupied with such things. He believed that many of the horrors of the twentieth century had their roots in the effort to liberate people from religion. Milosz witnessed these efforts first-hand and reflected on their results: “Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death”the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murder we are not going to be judged.”

The evidence of Milosz’s Christianity is spread throughout his poems and essays in fragmentary clues. Rarely did he discuss the topic systematically. His faith was often a kind of secret which, once noticed, could explain at least in part his choice of themes and subjects. But sometimes it would come to the surface of his work. In 2002, Milosz published a long poem that was meant to function as a testimonial, A Theological Treatise . Milosz was aware that he was risking his reputation by venturing to write about theology, but he chose to use his credibility and clout to address a theme that literary fashion silently prohibited.

“Why theology?” he asks in the first paragraph of this poem. (There are twenty-three paragraphs in the whole treatise, each containing varying numbers of stanzas.) He answers, “Because the first must be first. / And first is a notion of truth.” The paragraph concludes with a plea and a stipulation: “Let reality return to our speech. / That is, meaning. Impossible without an absolute point of reference.”

In this testimonial poem, Milosz directly acknowledges God as the absolute point of reference. Many of the Christian themes scattered throughout his writings are here gathered together. One such theme is the frank expression of his own struggle with various elements of Catholic life. He always took theology seriously, but he sometimes wrote about theologians with bitter irony.

He found the clericalism in some sectors of the Polish Church to be exaggerated and distasteful.

I Apologize

I apologize, most reverend theologians, for a tone not befitting
the purple of your robes.

I thrash in the bed of my style, searching for a comfortable position,
not too sanctimonious, not too mundane.

There must be a middle place between abstraction and childishness
where one can talk seriously about serious things.

Catholic dogmas arefew inches too high; we stand on our toes
and for a moment it seems to us that we see.

Yet the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the mystery of Original Sin,
the mystery of the Redemption are well armored against reason.

Which tries in vain to get straight the story of God
before his creation of the world, when
the separation of good from evil occurred.
What in all that can be grasped by little girls
dressed in white for First Communion!

If even gray-haired theologians concede that it is too much for them
and invoke the inadequacy of the human tongue.

And it will not do to prattle on about sweet little Jesus
in the hay of his cradle.

 Milosz was wary of the comfortable abstract formulas offered by the academic theologian; they seemed to have little to do with the horrible questions his life story had forced him to confront. He recoiled from mechanical presentations of doctrine and easy explanations of suffering.

When a clerical and theological style becomes stiff or sanctimonious, it cannot be taken seriously by people engaged in life-and-death struggles. But a poetry that spoke only of this-worldly things”a poetry that was “too mundane””would fail to satisfy the deepest longings of the heart. Milosz rightly aims for a “middle place” where it is possible to “talk seriously about serious things.”

Yet Milosz believed, somewhat problematically, that the most serious things resisted any kind of definition. The mysteries of the faith were to be praised, described, but not explained. “Catholic dogmas are a few inches too high; we stand on our toes / and for a moment it seems to us that we see,” he writes in the Treatise . “Yet the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the mystery of Original Sin, / the mystery of the Redemption are all well armored against reason . . . // What in all that can be grasped by little girls dressed in white for First Communion?”

Milosz’s long testimonial poem also reveals his gnostic leanings. The tendency makes for interesting poems, but it adds to his difficulties with Catholic theology. “Not out of frivolity, most reverend theologians, I busied myself with the secret / knowledge of many centuries, but out of the pain in my heart when I looked out / at the atrocity of the world.”

Here Milosz is explaining and justifying his turn to gnostic texts for help. He addresses himself to the “most reverend theologians” to complain that his need was not being met by their pat assurances. The pain Milosz refers to in this poem is not merely an intellectual sorrow: he is writing not just about the universal tragedy; he is writing about the tragedies of his own life.

Wounded by the betrayals and injustices he has witnessed, he longs to understand the mysteries of evil and innocent suffering: “If God is all-powerful, he can allow all this only if he is not good. // Wherefrom then the limits of his power? Why such an order of creation? They all / tried to find an answer, heretics, kabbalists, alchemists, the Knights of the Rose Cross.” Here he cites the gnostic sources to which he turned. Surely he was led in this direction by reading Jacob Boehme, who had so strongly influenced Adam Mickiewicz, the critical point of reference for all modern Polish poetry.

It would have been impossible for Milosz not to have gone this gnostic way, at least to some extent. In addition to the Mickiewicz influence, his own temperament inclined him toward it. The horrors he lived through caused him to pose the same questions as these gnostic texts, and orthodox Christianity was not giving him the spiritual answers he needed.

But if the Christianity of his time and place was not delivering those answers, this does not mean that the answers were not there. And in Milosz’s struggle we see him betray an instinctive understanding that this may be the case. This explains why, in the midst of the Treatise ’s lengthy discussion of gnostic questions, he also narrates his own practice of Catholic life.

He is being driven by something larger than himself, and it is nothing less than his whole Catholic faith, whether he always chooses it or not. He admits, “Alas, an American saying has applied to me, though it was not coined with kindly intent: / ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.’” He is not always comfortable with his religious inheritance, and yet something compels him never to abandon it.

Milosz often sensed a lack in his own faith, and he confesses this in the Treatise , as elsewhere (see “Distance,” above): “Why not concede,” he asks, “that I have not progressed, in my religion, / past the Book of Job?” This can best be understood in light of something he tells us later in the poem: “Only a dark tone, an inclination toward a peculiar Manichean / strain of Christianity, could have led one to the proper trail.” Here “the proper trail” means the proper interpretation of his work. All this comes in the paragraph that begins, “To present myself at last as an heir to mystical lodges . . . ”

He is confessing much, disclosing much, at these points in his testament. He is providing his readers with clearer information about his spiritual life. Hence the “at last” which introduces this revealing paragraph. He is expressing relief as he finally reveals the sources and limits of his religious anxiety.

What is significant for Milosz’s readers in this kind of writing is that he names in himself what is a fundamental religious question of our times; namely, getting past Job. Getting past Job”or for that matter, getting past a Manichean Christianity”is a serious religious challenge. The Christian tradition is in fact equipped to take the serious searcher past Job, but it was precisely this part of the tradition that was somehow not delivered to Milosz and which does not appear in the poem. I would suggest that it is only possible to move past Job by going through Job.

There is a tradition of Christian exegesis which reads Job as a prophecy of Christ. One can even imagine Job’s complaint provoking the Incarnation and the cross as the response from God. The prefiguration becomes explicit at Job 10:4-5, where Job says to God, “Have you eyes of flesh? Do you see as man sees? Are your days as the days of a mortal?”

In fact, in the Incarnation and the death of Jesus, God can now answer Yes to this question. This Yes is strongly underlined in the phrase from St. Paul in the Letter to the Philippians 2:8: “obedient unto death, yes, death on a cross.” In the same part of the poem where Milosz quipped about the little girls dressed in white for First Communion, he also warns, “And it will not do to prattle on about sweet little Jesus / in the hay of his cradle.”

But, of course, sweet little Jesus in the hay is not the central announcement of Christian faith. The central announcement is Jesus Christ, “and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Milosz’s warning against a sweet little Jesus is equivalent to Job’s demand for a serious answer to his serious question. But the death of Jesus on the cross is God’s serious answer. In the end, Milosz’s Treatise does not grapple deeply enough with this divine answer.

To come back to Milosz’s words at this point in the poem, he notes a difference between himself and Job”namely, that Job thought of himself as innocent while the poet is not. “I was not innocent, I wanted to be innocent, but I couldn’t be.” But in the end it was not Job’s innocence that was important but rather the majesty and mystery of God, before which Job bowed down and became silent.

In an earlier writing Milosz had shown himself to be aware that this was the key insight of Job, even if, in the poet’s version of the story, God says things that are rather more severe than anything to be found in the book of Job. In a little essay titled “Misfortune” in Milosz’s ABCs , Milosz writes, “To create a universe like the one we have is not nice. ‘And why should I have to be nice?’ asks God. ‘Where did you get such ideas?’” This is strong thinking. It is acquiescence to the impenetrable mystery of God, an acquiescence to whatever of God the death of Jesus on the cross is meant to reveal.

A Song On The End Of The World
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Czeslaw Milosz


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 5 – Robert Alter

February 14, 2014
Job 40:15–24 describes Behemoth, and then the sea-monster Leviathan, to demonstrate to Job the futility of questioning God, who alone has created these beings and who alone can capture them. Both beasts are chaos monsters destroyed by the deity at the time of creation, although such a conflict is not found in the creation account. Leviathan is identified figuratively with both the primeval sea (Job 3:8, Psalms 74:13) and in apocalyptic literature – describing the end-time – as that adversary, the Devil, from before creation who will finally be defeated. In the divine speeches in Job, Behemoth and Leviathan may both be seen as composite and mythical creatures with enormous strength, which humans like Job could not hope to control. But both are reduced to the status of divine pets, with rings through their noses and Leviathan on a leash.

Job 40:15–24 describes Behemoth, and then the sea-monster Leviathan, to demonstrate to Job the futility of questioning God, who alone has created these beings and who alone can capture them. Both beasts are chaos monsters destroyed by the deity at the time of creation, although such a conflict is not found in the creation account. Leviathan is identified figuratively with both the primeval sea (Job 3:8, Psalms 74:13) and in apocalyptic literature – describing the end-time – as that adversary, the Devil, from before creation who will finally be defeated. In the divine speeches in Job, Behemoth and Leviathan may both be seen as composite and mythical creatures with enormous strength, which humans like Job could not hope to control. But both are reduced to the status of divine pets, with rings through their noses and Leviathan on a leash.

Alter is working alone, the way a poet or novelist does, and the versions he produces carry the authority of imagination, of literature, rather than of religion. In his eyes, this is not a demotion but an elevation. Only if we approach the Bible as a work of literature, Alter believes, can we understand the full subtlety and intelligence of its stories. As he writes in his pioneering book The Art of Biblical Narrative: “As one discovers how to adjust the fine focus of those literary binoculars, the biblical tales, forceful enough to begin with, show a surprising subtlety and inventiveness of detail, and in many instances a beautifully interwoven wholeness. … The paradoxical truth may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history.”


Nature for the Job poet is not a Newtonian clock operating with automatic mechanism: The impulse to reproduce and nurture life depends upon God’s imbuing each of His creatures with the instinct or “wisdom” to carry it out properly. If the universal provider of life chooses in any case to withhold His understanding — as Job himself is said to lack wisdom and understanding — things can go awry.

In both structure and thematic assertion, Chapters 38-41 are a great diastolic movement, responding to the systolic movement of Chapter 3. The poetics of suffering in Chapter 3 seeks to contract the whole world to a point of extinction, and it generates a chain of images of enclosure and restriction. The poetics of providential vision in the speech from the storm conjures up horizon after expanding horizon, each populated with a new form of life.

Thus, in the second segment of the zoological panorama (38:5-12, though in fact cued by (38:4), we see a parade of animals moving outward into the wild, far beyond the yokes and reins of man: first the young of the mountain goats and gazelles, heading out into the open, then the onager and the wild ox that will never be led into a furrow.

In Chapter 3, only in the grave did prisoners “hear not the taskmaster’s voice” (3:18), and only there was “the slave free of his master” (3:19). But this, God’s rejoinder implies, is a civilization-bound, hobbled perception of reality, for nature abounds in images of freedom: “Who set the wild ass free, / and the unager’s reins who loosed, // whose home I made in the steppes, / his dwelling-place flats of salt? // He scoffs at the bustling city, / the driver’s shouts he does not hear” (39:5-7).

The way in which these various antitheses between Chapter 3 and chapters 38-39 are elaborately pointed may suggest why some of the subsequent major movements in Job’s poetic argument are not also alluded to here. In part, the reason might have been a problem of technical feasibility: it is manageable enough to reverse the key-terms and images and themes of one rich poem at the beginning in another poem at the end, but it might have become unwieldy to introduce into the conclusion allusions to a whole series of intervening poems.

More substantively, however, God chooses for His response to Job the arena of creation, not the court of justice, the latter being the most insistent recurrent metaphor in Job’s argument after Chapter 3. And it is, moreover, a creation that barely reflects the presence of man, a creation where human concepts of justice have no purchase.

We are accustomed to think of the radicalism of the challenge to God in the Book of Job, but it should be recognized that, against the norms of biblical literature, God’s response is no less radical than the challenge. Elsewhere in the Bible, man is the crown of creation, little lower than the angels, expressly fashioned to rule over nature. Perhaps that is why there is so little descriptive nature poetry in the Bible: the natural world is of scant interest in itself; it engages a poet’s imagination only insofar as it reflects man’s place in the scheme of things or serves his purposes.

But in the uniquely vivid descriptive poetry of Job 38-41, the natural world is valuable for itself, and man, far from standing at its center, is present only by implication, peripherally and impotently, in this welter of fathomless forces and untamable beasts.

The most elaborately described as well as the most arresting member of the bestiary in the first discourse is the war-horse. Few readers of the poem would want to give up these splendid lines, though some have wondered what this evocation of the snorting stallion has to do with Job’s predicament. Indeed, some have suspected that the vignette of the war-horse, like the clearly related portraits of the hippopotamus and the crocodile in the next two chapters, is really a sort of descriptive set piece that the poet brought in because he knew he could do it so well.

It seems to me on the contrary that all three beasts are intrinsically connected with the vision of creation that is God’s response to Job’s questioning. The stallion enters the poem through a verbal clue: if the foolish ostrich only had wisdom, we are told, it would soar into the sky and “scoff at the horse and its rider” (39:18).

This moves us directly into a consideration of the horse, which occupies the penultimate position in the first bestiary, before the concluding image of the hawk that will bring us back in an envelope structure to the initial picture of wild creatures caring for their young:

Do you give might to the horse,
do you clothe his neck with a mane?
Do you make his roar like locusts –
his splendid snort is terror.
He churns up the valley exulting,
in power goes out to the clash of arms.
He scoffs at fear and is undaunted,
turns not back from the sword.
Over him rattles the quiver,
the blade, the javelin, and the spear.
With clamor and clatter he swallows the ground,
and ignores the trumpets sound.
At the trumpet he says, “Aha, “
and from afar he scents the fray,
the thunder of captains, the shouts.

The passage is a rich interweave of heightening maneuvers and narrative developments between versets and between lines, as the warhorse itself is the vivid climactic image of the story the poet has to tell about the animal kingdom — before, that is, Behemoth and Leviathan, who, as we shall see, are a climax beyond the climax.

In other words, we perceive the stallion narratively, first snorting and pawing the ground, then dashing into the thick of battle; and we see, for example, his whole body aquiver in a first verset, then a startling focus in the second verset on his nostrils snorting terror. The stallion is a concrete embodiment of contradictions held in high tension, in keeping with the whole vision of nature that has preceded. Though fiercer than the onager and the wild ox, he allows his great power to be subjected to the uses of man; yet, as he is described, he gives the virtual impression of joining in battle of his own free will, for his own pleasure.

It would be naive to conclude from these lines that the poet was interested in promoting martial virtues, but the evoked scene of mayhem does convey a sense that a terrible beauty is born and an awesome energy made manifest in the heat of war. These qualities are continuous with the ravening lion that began the bestiary and with the meteorological poetry before it in which lightning leapt from the cloud and the LORD stored up cosmic weapons in the treasure-houses of snow and hail.

To be sure, the whole zoological section of the poem is meant to tell Job that God’s tender mercies are over all His creatures, but tonally and imagistically this revelation comes in a great storm rather than in a still, small voice, for the providence portrayed is over a world that defies comfortable moral categorizings. The most crucial respect in which such defiance makes itself felt is in the immense, imponderable play of power that is seen to inform creation. The world is a constant cycle of life renewing and nurturing life, but it is also a constant clash of warring forces.

This is neither an easy nor a direct answer to the question of why the good man should suffer, but the imposing vision of a harmonious order to which violence is nevertheless intrinsic and where destruction is part of creation is meant to confront Job with the limits of his moral imagination, a moral imagination far more honest but only somewhat less conventional than that of the Friends.

The strange and wonderful description of the hippopotamus and the crocodile, which after the introductory verses of challenge (40:7-14) takes up all of the second discourse, then makes those limits even more sharply evident by elaborating these two climactically focused images of the poem’s vision of nature.

There has been a certain amount of quite unnecessary confusion among commentators as to whether the subject of the second discourse is in fact zoology or mythology. Many have argued that the two beasts in question are nothing more than the hippopotamus and the crocodile. Others, like Marvin Pope in his philologically painstaking though somewhat sketchy treatment of Job,4 have claimed that both are mythological monsters.

“Leviathan” in fact appears in Chapter 3 as a mythological entity, and the word is clearly cognate with the Ugaritic Lotan, a kind of sea dragon. The argument for mythology is shakier for Behemoth because there is no extra-biblical evidence of the term as a mythological designation, and all the other occurrences within the Bible would seem to be as a generic term for perfectly naturalistic grass-eating beasts of the field, including an earlier use of the term in Job itself (12:7).

The either/or rigidity of the debate over Behemoth and Leviathan quickly dissolves if we note that these two culminating images of the speech from the storm reflect the distinctive poetic logic for the development of meanings that we have been observing on both small scale and large in biblical poetry. The movement from literal to figurative, from verisimilar to hyperbolic, from general assertion to focused concrete image, is precisely the movement that carries us from the catalogue of beasts to Behemoth and Leviathan.

The war-horse, who is the most striking item in the general catalogue and the one also given the most attention quantitatively (seven lines), is a way station in the rising line of semantic intensity that terminates in Behemoth and Leviathan.

The stallion is a familiar creature but already uncanny in the beauty of power he represents. From this point, the poet moves on to two exotic animals whose habitat is the banks of the Nile — that is, far  removed from the actual experience of the Israelite audience and even farther from that of the fictional auditor Job, whose homeland is presumably somewhere to the east of Israel.

The listener, that is, may have actually glimpsed a war-horse or a lion or mountain goat, but the hippopotamus and crocodile are beyond his geographical reach and cultural ken, and he would most likely have heard of them through travelers’ yarns and the fabulation of folklore. The hippopotamus is given ten lines of vivid description that place him on the border between the natural and the supernatural.

Not a single detail is mythological, but everything is rendered with hyperbolic intensity, concluding in the strong assertion that no hook can hold him (in fact, the Egyptians used hooked poles to hunt the hippopotamus). The evocation of the crocodile is then accorded thirty-three lines, and it involves a marvelous fusion of precise observation, hyperbole, and mythological heightening of the real reptile, and thus becomes a beautifully appropriate climax to the whole poem.

To put this question in historical perspective, the very distinction we as moderns make between mythology and zoology would not have been so clear-cut for the ancient imagination. The Job poet and his audience, after all, lived in an era before zoos, and exotic beasts like the ones described in Chapters 40-41 were not part of an easily accessible and observable reality. The borderlines, then, between fabled report, immemorial myth, and natural history would tend to blur, and the poet creatively exploits this blur in his climactic evocation of the two amphibious beasts that are at once part of the natural world and beyond it.

What is stressed in the description of the hippopotamus is the paradoxical union of pacific nature — he is a herbivore, seen peacefully resting in the shade of lotuses on the riverbank — and terrific power against which no human sword could prevail. (Thus, whether hippopotami could actually be captured is not important, for the needs to drive home the point that this awesome beast is both literally and figuratively beyond man’s grasp.) And with strategic effectiveness, the notion of muscular power — bones like bronze, limbs like iron rods — is combined with a striking emphasis on sexual potency, thus extending the images of generation and birth of the first discourse:

Look, pray: the power in his loins,
the virile strength in his belly’s muscles.
He makes his tail stand like a cedar,
his balls’ sinews twine together.

Biblical poetry in general, certainly when measured by the standard of Greek epic verse, is not very visual, or rather is visual only in momentary flashes and sudden climactic developments. But the definition of the crocodile is exceptionally striking in its sustained force, in keeping with its role as the culmination of this long, impressive demonstration of God’s searching vision contrasted to man blind view.

I shall translate the last twenty-two lines of the poem which follow the initial assertion that Leviathan, like Behemoth, is impervious to every hook and snare and every scheme of being subjected to domestication. The line numbers reflect verse numbers in the Hebrew text of Chapter 41, beginning with verse 5:

5 Who can uncover his outer garb,
come into his double mail?
6 Who can pry open the doors of his face?
All around his teeth is terror.
7 His back is rows of shields
closed with the tightest seal.
8 Each touches against the next,
no breath can come between them.
9 Each sticks fast to the next,
locked together, they will not part.
10 His sneezes shoot out light,
and his eyes are like the eyelids of dawn.
11 Firebrands leap from his mouth,
sparks of fire fly into the air.
12 From his nostrils smoke comes out,
like a boiling vat on brushwood.
13 His breath kindles coals,
and flame comes out of his mouth.
14 Strength abides in his neck,
and before him power dances.
15 The folds of his flesh cling together,
hard-cast, he will not totter.
16 His heart is cast hard as stone,
cast hard as a nether millstone.
17 When he rears up, the gods are frightened,
when he crashes down, they cringe.
18 Who overtakes him with sword, it will not avail,
nor spear nor dart nor lance.
19 Iron he deems as straw,
and bronze as rotten wood.
20 No arrow can make him flee,
slingstones for him turn to straw.
21 Missiles* are deemed as straw,
and he mocks the javelin’s clatter.
22 Beneath him, jagged shards,
he draws a harrow over the mud.
23 He makes the deep boil like a pot,
turns sea to an ointment pan.
24 Behind him glistens a wake,
he makes the deep seem hoary.
25 He has no match on earth,
made as he is without fear.
26 All that is lofty he can see.
He is king over all proud beasts.

The power of the crocodile is suggested both through a heightening of the descriptive terms and through a certain narrative movement. First we get the real beast’s awesome teeth and impenetrable armor of scales, then a mythologizing depiction of him breathing; smoke and fire and sneezing sparks of light.

This representation, moreover, of the fire-breathing beast is strangely reminiscent of the description of the God of battles in 2 Samuel 22 and elsewhere in biblical poetry.’ At the same time, the series of challenging interrogatives that has controlled the rhetoric of the divine discourse from the beginning of Chapter 38 glides into declaratives, starting in verse 7, as the poem moves toward closure.’

As elsewhere, the poet works with an exquisite sense of the descriptive needs at hand and of the structural continuities of the poem and the book. The peculiar emphasis on fire and light in the representation of the crocodile takes us back to the cosmic imagery of light in God’s first discourse, to the lightning leaping from the cloud, and beyond that to Job’s initial poem. In fact, the remarkable and celebrated phrase “eyelids of the dawn, which Job in Chapter 3 wanted never to be seen again, recurs here to characterize the light flashing from the crocodile’s eyes.

This makes us draw a pointed connection and at the same time shows how the poet’s figurative language dares to situate rare beauty in the midst of power and terror and strangeness. The implicit narrative development of the description takes us from a vision of the head, armor plate, and body of the beast (verses 13-24), to a picture of him rearing up and crashing down, brushing off all assailants, and then churning out of our field of vision, leaving behind a foaming wake that, like his mouth and eyes, shines (verses 25-32).

The language of sea (yam) and deep (tehom, metzulah) rather than of river water predominates in this final segment, that is in part because of the associations of the mythic Lotan with those terms and that habitat, but also because this vocabulary carries us back to the cosmogonic beginning of God’s speech (see in particular 38:16).

Job’s merely human vision could not penetrate the secrets of the deep, and now at time end we have before our mind’s eye the magnificent, ungraspable beast who lives in the deep, who is master of all creatures of land and sea, who from his own, quite unimaginable perspective “sees” all that is lofty. Leviathan is nature mythologized, for that is the poet’s way of conveying the truly uncanny, the truly inscrutable, in nature; but he remains part of nature, for if he did not it would make little sense for the poem to conclude, “he is king over all proud beasts.””

By now, I would hope it has become, clear what on earth descriptions of a hippopotamus and a crocodile are doing at the end of the Book of Job. Obviously, there can be no direct answer to Job’s question as to why, having been a decent and God-fearing man, he should have lost all his sons and daughters, his wealth, and his health. Job’s poetry was an instrument for probing, against the stream of the Friends’ platitudes, the depths of his own understandable sense of outrage over what befell him.

God’s poetry enables Job to glimpse beyond his human plight an immense world of power and beauty and awesome warring forces. This world is permeated with God’s ordering concern, but as the vividness of the verse makes clear, it presents to the human eye a welter of contradictions, dizzying variety, energies and entities that man cannot take in. Job surely does not have the sort of answer he expected, but he has a strong answer of another kind.

Now at the end he will no longer presume to want to judge the Creator, having been brought through God’s tremendous poetry to realize that creation can perhaps be sensed but not encompassed by the mind — like that final image of the crocodile-Leviathan already whipping away from our field of vision, leaving behind only a shining wake for us to see.

If Job in his first response to the deity (40:2, 4-5) merely confessed that he could not hope to contend with God and would henceforth hold his peace, in his second response (42:2-6), after the conclusion of the second divine speech, he humbly admits that he has been presumptuous, has in fact “obscured counsel” about things he did not understand. Referring more specifically to the impact of God’s visionary poem, he announces that he has been vouchsafed a gift of sight — the glimpse of an ungraspable creation surging with the power of its Creator:

By the ear’s rumor I heard of You,
and now my eyes have seen You.


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 4 – Robert Alter

February 13, 2014
Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job's lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God's lines affirming light.

Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job’s lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God’s lines affirming light.

See Intro in first post.


This general turning of Job’s first affirmation of death into an affirmation of life is minutely worked out in the language and imagery of the poem that God speaks. Job’s initial poem, we recall, began by setting out the binary opposition between day and night, light and darkness, and then proceeded through an intensifying series of wishes that the light be swallowed up by darkness.

The opening verset of God’s speech summons Job as someone who “darkens counsel,” and the emphatic and repeated play with images of light and darkness in the subsequent lines makes it clear that this initial characterization of Job is a direct critique of his first speech and all that follows from it. (The allusion here to the poem in Chapter 3 is reinforced by the term God uses at the beginning of the second line in addressing Job, giver, “man,” which also occurs at the beginning of Job’s first poem — “the night that said, A man has been conceived.”

It is as though God were implying: you called yourself man, giver, now gird up your loins like a man and see if you can face the truth. Job, the Voice from the Whirl wind suggests, has gotten things entirely skewed in regard to the basic ontological constituents of light and darkness. The two in fact exist in a delicate and powerful dialectic beyond the ken of man, and the balance between them is part of the unfathomable beauty of creation. This point is intimated in many of the first thirty-seven lines of the poem and made explicit in verses 19-20:

Where is the way light dwells,
and darkness, where is its place,
That you might take it to its home,
and understand the paths to its house?

Job in Chapter 3 prayed for cloud and darkness to envelop the day he was born. Cloud and deep mist reappear here in a startlingly new context, as the matinal  [vocab: relating to or taking place in the morning.] blanket over the primordial seas, as the swaddling bands of creation (verse 9). Job wanted “death’s shadow (tzalmdvet) to cover his existence; here that term appears as part of large cosmic picture not to be perceived with mere human eyes: Have the gates of death been laid bare to you, / and the gates of death’s shadow have you seen? (verse 17).

In the one explicitly moral point of theodicy made by the Voice from the Whirlwind (verses 12-15), the diurnal rhythm of light succeeding darkness is taken as both emblem and instrument of God’s ferreting out of evildoers — an idea not present to the “Ecclesiastean” vision of Chapter 3, where evil and oppression are merely part of the anguished and futile cyclical movement of life.

It is not surprising that this particular passage should be terse and a little cryptic, for whatever God means to suggest about bringing; wrongdoing to light, He is not invoking the simple moral calculus used so unquestioningly by the Friends. Job in the ascending spirals of his pain-driven rhetoric sought to summon all forms of darkness to eclipse forever the sun and moon and stars. In response God asks him whether he has any notion of what it means in amplitude and moral power to be able to muster the dawn (verse 12) and set the constellations in their regular motion (verses 31-33).

Perhaps the finest illustration of this nice match of meaning and imagery between the two poems is the beautiful counterbalance between the most haunting of Job’s lines wishing for darkness and the most exquisite of God’s lines affirming light. Job, one recalls, tried to conjure up an eternal starless night:

Let its twilight stars go dark,
let it hope for light in vain,
and let it not see the eyelids of the dawn


God, near the beginning of His first discourse, evokes the moment when creation was completed in an image that has become justly famous in its own right but that is also, it should be observed, a counter image to 3:9:

When the morning stars sang together,
 and all the sons of God shouted for joy

(verse 7).

That is, instead of a night with no twilight stars, with no glimmer of dawn, the morning stars of creation exult. The emphasis in this line on song and shouts of joy also takes us back to the poem of Chapter 3, which began with a triumphant cry on the night of conception — a cry Job wanted to wish away — and proceeded to a prayer that no joyous exclamation come into that night (3:7).

Finally, the vestigially mythological “sons of God” — with the semantic breadth in Hebrew of “son,” this implies not biological filiation but something like “celestial company” – takes this back beyond Chapter 3 to the frame-story. There, of course, it was the Adversary who was the prominent and sinister member of “the sons of God.”

The discordant note he represented has been expunged here in this heavenly chorus of creation. What I am pointing to is not one of those contradictions of sources on which biblical scholarship has too often thrived but a culminating moment in which the vision of the poet transcends the limited terms of the folktale he has chosen to use.

There is a second set of key images in the first movement of God’s speech that harks back to Job’s initial poem, namely, the imagery of physical generation and birth. Since this imagery, unlike light and darkness, which are literal substances of creation, is imposed metaphorically by the poet as a way of shaping the material, it provides even clearer evidence of how the poem in Chapter 38 was purposefully articulated as a grand reversal of the poem in Chapter 3.

Job’s first speech begins with birth and conception and circles back on the belly or womb where he would like to be enclosed, where he imagines the fate of the dead fetus as the happiest of human lots. Against those doors of the belly (3:10) that Job wanted shut on him forever, the Voice from the Whirlwind invokes a cosmic womb and cosmic doors to a very different purpose:

Who hedged the sea with double doors,
when it gushed forth from the womb

(verse 8).

This figuration of setting limits to the primal sea as closing doors on a gushing womb produces a high tension of meaning absent from Job’s unequivocal death wish. The doors are closed and bolted (verse 10) so that the flood will not engulf the earth, but nevertheless the waves surge, the womb of all things pulsates, something is born — a sense made clear in the incipiently narrative development of the womb image into the next line (verse 9), where in a metaphor unique in biblical poetry the primordial mists over the surface of the deep are called swaddling bands.

One might note that in the anticipations of this passage in Job’s speech there are allusions to the Canaanite cosmogonic myth of a triumph by force over an archaic sea monster, while in God’s own words that martial story is set aside, or at the very least left in the distant background, so that the cosmogony can be rendered ins in terms of procreation.

What we are invited to imagine in this fashion is creation not as the laying low of a foe but as the damming up and channeling of powers nevertheless allowed to remain active. (The only clear allusion in the poem to God’s doing battle, verse 23, is projected forward in time to an indefinite, perhaps vaguely apocalyptic future.) The poet uses a rather unexpected verb, “to hedge in,” in order to characterize this activity of holding back the womb of the sea, and that is a double allusion, to God’s protective “hedging round” of Job mentioned in the frame-story and to Job’s bitter complaint toward the end of his first poem of having been “hedged in” by God.

The verb, in its various conjugations, is nowhere else in the Bible used for the closing of doors but generally suggests a shading or sheltering act, as with a wing or canopy. One usage that might throw some light on our line from Job is this verse in Psalms (139:13):

“For You created my innermost parts,
wove me [or hedged me around] in my mother’s womb.”

The Creator, that is, at the end of Job, is actively blocking off, bolting in, the surge of the sea, but the word carries after it a long train of associations having to do with protection and nurture, so that the negative sense of the verb in Chapter 3 is in a way combined with the positive sense which the frame-story uses it. What results is a virtual oxymoron, expressing a paradoxical feeling that God’s creation involves a necessary holding in check of violent forces and a sustaining of those same forces because they are also forces of life.

One sees in a single compact phrase how the terms of God’s poetry — which is to say, ultimately, His imagination of the world — transcend the terms of Job’s poetry and that of the Friends. When the poem moves on — as I have suggested, in an implicitly narrative movement — from cosmogony to meteorology, birth imagery once more introduced.

First Job is challenged sarcastically, “You know, for you were then born” (verse 21), which, in addition to the ultimate allusion to the beginning of the poem in Chapter 3, sounds ,quite like Eliphaz’s words to Job in Chapter 15. The crucial difference is that instead of being a rhetorical ploy in a petty contest of supposed longevity, this address is set against a background of cosmic uterine pulsations and leads into a thick cluster of birth images a few lines down (verses 28-29), so that we quickly grasp the ontological contrast between Job, a man born of woman in time, and the principle of generation infinitely larger than man that informs nature.

The two lines below that articulate this principle richly develop the implications of the birth imagery in a characteristically biblical fashion:

Does the rain have a father,
or who begot the drops of dew?
From whose belly did the ice come forth,
To the frost of the heavens who gave birth?

In each of these two lines we are carried forward from agent (fat her) or agency (belly) to the active process of procreation (begot, gave birth — in the Hebrew, two different conjugations of the same verb). Between the first line and the second, what amounts to a biological focusing of the birth image is carried out as we go from the father, the inseminator who is the proximate cause of birth, to the mother, in whose body the actual birth is enacted.

The interlinear parallelism of this couplet also plays brilliantly with the two opposed states of water, first liquid and falling or condensing, then frozen. In the first line, the haunted inapplicability of the birth imagery is a result of multiplicity: How could one imagine anyone fathering the countless millions of raindrops or dewdrops?

In the second line, the incongruity — which is to say, the chasm between man’s small world and God’s vast world — is a more shocking one (still another intensifying development) as the poet’s language forces us to imagine the unimaginable, great chunk of ice coming out of the womb. Figurative language is used here to show the limits of figuration itself, which, in the argumentative thrust of the poem, means the limits of the human imagination. The immediately following line (verse 30) is a focusing development this ice imagery: “Water congeals like stone, / and the face of the deep locks hard.”

The tension of opposites that is at the heart of God’s vision of the world is strongly felt here: fluid and stone-harp solid, white-frozen surface and watery depths. Having reached this point, the poet lays aside birth imagery, and after three lines devoted to the stars concludes the whole meteorological segment with a focusing development of the phenomena of natural precipitation we just observed in verses 28-30, which themselves capped a whole sequence on snow and rain that began with verse.

There remains of course, an implicit connection between fructification or birth and rain, as anyone living in the Near Eastern climate and topography would be readily aware, and as verse 27 reminds us quite naturalistically and verse 28 by a sort of riddling paradox (no one is the father of the rain, but the rain is the father of life). In any case, the concluding four lines of our segment — putting aside verse 36, whose meaning is uncertain — offer an image of downpour on parched land that is, at least by implication, a final turn of the screw in the poetic rejoinder to Chapter 3.

In Job’s initial poem the only water anywhere in evidence is the saltwater of tears (3:24), and clouds are mentioned only as a means to cover up the light. It is surely appropriate that God should now challenge Job to make lightning leap from the thickness of the cloud and that in His cosmic realm, as against Job’s rhetorical realm, the meaning of clouds is not darkness but a source of water to renew the earth with life.

The rest of God’s speech — the second half of the first discourse and virtually all of the second discourse — is then devoted to a poetic panorama of the animal life that covers the earth. The sequence of beasts, like the movement of the poem through space via metonymic links, is loosely associative but also instructive: lion, raven, mountain goat and gazelle, wild ass, wild ox, ostrich, war horse, hawk and eagle. The first two and the last two creatures in the sequence are beasts of prey whose native fierceness in effect frames the wildness of the whole catalogue.

The sequence begins, that is, with an image of the lion couching in ambush for its prey (38:39-40), determined to sate its keen appetite; and the sequence closes with this striking evocation of the eagle seeking food for its brood: “From there [the mountain crag] he seeks out food, / from afar his eyes look down. // His chicks lap up blood; / where the slain are, there he is” (39:29-30).

This concluding poem in Job is probably one of the most unsentimental poetic treatments of the animal world in the Western literary tradition and, at least at first thought, a little surprising coming from the mouth of God. But the violence and, even more, the peculiar beauty of violence are precisely the point of God’s visionary rejoinder to Job. The animal realm is a non-moral realm, but the sharp paradoxes it embodies make us see the inadequacy of any merely human moral calculus — not only that of the Friends, learned by rote, but even Job’s, spoken out of the integrity of suffering.

In the animal kingdom, the tender care for one’s young may well mean their gulping the blood of freshly slain creatures. It is a daily rite of sustaining life that defies all moralizing anthropomorphic interpretation. And yet, the series of rhetorical questions to Job suggests, God’s providence looks after each of these strange, fierce, inaccessible creatures. There is an underlying continuity between this representation of the animal world and the picture of inanimate nature in 38:2-38, with its sense of terrific power abiding in the natural world, fructification and destruction as alternative aspects of the same, imponderable forces.

That continuity is reinforced by the carryover of images of procreation from the cosmogonic and meteorological sections of the poem to the zoological section. In the two former instances, as we just saw, the language of parturition and progeny was first metaphoric and then both metaphoric and heavily ironic; among the animals, it becomes quite literal. The raven at the beginning of this section (38:41) and the eagle at the end are seen striving to fulfill the needs of their young.

Immediately after the raven, the birth process and early growth of the mountain goat and gazelle are given detailed attention:

Do you know the mountain goats’ birth time,
do you mark the calving of the gazelles?
Do you number the months till they come to term
and know their birthing time?
They crouch, burst forth with their babes,
their young they push out to the world.
Their offspring batten, grow big in the wild,
they go out and do not return.

The emphasis on time here in conjunction with the evocation of birth brings us back in still another strong antithesis to Job’s wish in Chapter 3 that he could wipe out his birth. There, one recalls, he cursed the night of his conception by saying, “Let it not enter the number of months” (3:6).

Here, in God’s poem, that same phrase (with the minor morphological shift in the Hebrew of “number” from noun to verb) recurs as an instance of how time becomes a medium fruition under the watchful gaze of the divine maker of natural order. Reproduction and nurturing are the very essence of a constantly self-renewing creation as the poet imagines it.

But even the universal principle of generation is not free from uncanny contradiction, as the strange case of the ostrich (39:13-18) suggests. That peculiar bird, at least according to the ornithological lore on which the poet drew, abandons her eggs in the dirt, unmindful of the danger that they may be trampled underfoot by wild beasts,

For God made her forgetful of wisdom,
and he did not allot her insight


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 2 – Robert Alter

February 11, 2014
Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825.  William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC's poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God" or "human existence itself".

Job Accepting Charity, William Blake, 1825. William Blake (1757 – 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry led one contemporary art critic to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”. In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself”.

See Intro in previous post.


In Job’s complaint there are two extended anticipations of the Voice from the Whirlwind, 9:5-10 and 12:7-25. For the sake of economy I shall cite only the first, and shorter, of these two passages, with reference to the second. Job, in the midst of objecting that God is an impossible legal adversary because He is so overpowering, shifts his imagery upward from the arena of law to the cosmos:

Who uproots mountains and they know not,
overturns them in His wrath.
He makes earth shake in its setting,
and its pillars shudder.
He bids the sun not to rise,
and the stars He seals up tight.
He stretches the heavens alone,
and tramples the crests of the sea.
He makes the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the south wind’s chambers.
He performs great things without limit,

and wonders without number.

Job’s cosmic poetry, unlike that of the Friends, has a certain energy of vision, as though it proceeded from some immediate perception of the great things it reports. Most of the images he uses will reappear, more grandly, in God’s first discourse in Chapter 38.

There, too, God is the sole sovereign of the sun and the stars, the master of the very constellations and of the chambers of the wind mentioned here. There is, nevertheless, a decisive difference in emphasis between the two chapters, which leads me to infer that this and other passages in the poetic argument are in one respect patiently teaching us how to read God’s speech when it finally comes.

The Creator in Chapter 38 is distinguished by His ability to impose order. The Creator in Job’s poem is singled out first of all for His terrific, and perhaps arbitrary, power — tearing up mountains in His wrath, eclipsing the sun, and blotting out the stars. (The speaker, we should remember, is the same Job who had prayed for every glimmer of light to be swallowed by darkness.)

If both the present text and Chapter 38 allude indirectly to the Canaanite creation myth, in which the weather god conquers the primordial sea beast Yamm, what is stressed in Chapter 38 is God’s setting limits to the breakers of the of the sea, His bolting doors against the chaotic rush of the flood, while Job here gives us instead God the mighty combatant, treading on the back of the conquered sea. To be sure, there is also an element of celebration of the Creator in Job’s words, at least in the last two lines of the passage quoted, but his general perception of the master of the universe is is from the viewpoint of someone who has been devastated by His mastery.

This sense is made perfectly clear in the lines that introduce our passage (9:12-13), and the point is even more emphatic in the lines that follow it:

Look, He seizes — who can resist Him ?
Who can tell Him `What do You do?’
God will not relent His fury.
Beneath Him Rahab’s minions stoop


The analogous passage in Chapter 12 stresses still more boldly the arbitrary way in which God exercises His power.

Here, too, God, as in the revelation from the storm at the end, is imagined as the supreme, master of nature — a truth that, according to Job, we can learn from the very birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field (behemoth, a term that in a different acceptation will designate one of the featured attractions of the grand zoological show in the speech from the storm), And like the LORD Who will reveal Himself in the end to Job, God; here is imagined above all as the absolute sovereign of light and darkness: lays bare depths from darkness, / and brings out to light death’s shadow (12:22).

But this divine monarch as Job conceives Him show a singular inclination to capricious behavior, befuddling counselor, and judges, unmanning kings, humiliating nobles, using His prerogative over light and darkness to draw the leaders of nations into trackless wastes: they grope in darkness without light, / He makes them wander like drunken men (12:25). Job’s vision of God’s power over the world has an authority lacking in the parallel speeches of the Friends, but he sees it as power willfully misused, and that perception will require an answer by the Voice from the Whirlwind.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two extended anticipations of the concluding poem that show the greatest degree of consonance with it occur in the interpolated passages, the Elihu speech and the Hymn it Wisdom. This may seem less puzzling if we remember that in the ancient Near East a “book” remained for a long time a relatively open structure, so that later writers might seek to amplify or highlight the meaning of the original text by introducing materials that reinforced or extended certain of the original emphases.

In the case of Elihu, the immediate proximity to God’s speech is the most likely explanation of the high degree of consonance with it. That is, Elihu is an irascible presumptuous blowhard (images of inflation and evacuation cluster at the beginning of his discourse), and as such he is hardly someone to be in any way identified as God’s “spokesman.”

But as he approaches the end of his long harangue — as the poem ‘draws close, in other words, to the eruption of the Voice from the Whirlwind — he begins to weave into his abuse of Job images of God as the mighty sovereign of a vast creation beyond the ken of man. First he conjures up a vision of God Whose years are without number mustering the clouds and causing the rains to fall (36:26-33). Then, at the very end of his speech, in a clear structural bridge to the divine discourse that directly follows, Elihu asks Job whether he can really grasp God’s wondrous management of the natural world, invoking it as evidence of the moral perfection of the Divinity that man cannot fathom:

Hearken to this, O Job,
stand and take in the wonders of God.
Do you know when God directs them,
when His thunderhead’s lightning shines?
Do you know of the spread of cloud,
the wonders of the Perfect in Knowledge
When your garments feel warm
as the earth is becalmed from the south?
Will you pound out the skies with Him,
which are strong as a metal mirror?
Let us know what to say to Him!
We can lay out no case in our darkness.
Will it be told Him if I speak,
will a man say if he is devoured?
And now, they have not seen the light,
bright though it be in the skies,
as a wind passes, making them clear.
From the north gold comes;
over God — awesome glory.
Shaddai, whom we find not, is lofty in power,
in judgment and great justice — He will not oppress.
Therefore men do fear Him.
He does not regard the wise of heart.

Elihu’s cosmic poetry does not quite soar like that of the Voice from the Whirlwind (and this passage also involves several textual difficulties), and the second-rank poet responsible for his speeches never entirely escapes his weakness for boilerplate language. Even so, here the end it is something more than the rehearsal of formulas we saw in Eliphaz and Zophar.

The various items of his panorama of creation-the power over rain and thunder and the dazzling deployment of sunlight — will in a moment recur, more grandly, in God’s speech, and above all, the final emphasis on man’s inability to see the solar brilliance of the all-powerful God points toward the extraordinary exercise: of divine sight in which we are privileged to share through the poetry of God’s concluding speech.

The Hymn to Wisdom, Chapter 28, is in certain obvious ways cut from different cloth from the rest of the Book of Job. Lexically and stylistically, it sounds more like Proverbs than Job. Its celebration of divine Wisdom does not at all participate in the vehement argument on theodicy into which it is introduced. Structurally, the hymn is divided into three strophes of approximately equal length with the boundaries between them marked by a refrain; such explicit symmetry of form is servable elsewhere in the poetry of Job.

The imagery of precious that dominates the middle strophe has very few parallels else-in the book. But all these disparities may have troubled the audience a good deal less than they trouble us, with our notions of literary unity based on the reading of unitary texts produced by single who generally could be fully responsible for them from first draft to corrected page proofs. Whatever editor or ancient literary gremlin decided to insert this poem just after the completion of the rounds of debate with the Friends and before Job’s final Confession of Innocence (Chapters 29-31) chose the new material with a firm sense of could help tune up the proper attentiveness for God’s concluding speech.

That tuning up is a matter not just of emphasizing the vast scope of God’s Wisdom against man’s limited understanding but also of poetically defining a place where we can begin to imagine the unfathomable workings of the Creator. A whole world of sprawling expanses and inaccessible depths and heights is evoked in the poem — “A path that the vulture knows not, / nor the eye of the falcon beholds” (28:7), :unguessed realms of hidden recesses that only God can see or bring to light if He chooses.

The thematic stress on sight intimated at the end Elihu speeches is prominent here and made powerfully explicit in the concluding strophe. At the same time, specific details of the cosmic imagery that will begin the divine discourse are strategically anticipated (or, to think in the order of the editorial process rather than in the sequential order of the book, are strategically echoed):

And wisdom, from where does it come,
and where is the place of insight?
It is hidden from the eye of all living,
from the fowl of the heavens, concealed.
Perdition and Death have said,
“With our ears we heard its rumor.”
God grasps its way,
and He knows its place.

For He looks to the ends of the earth,
beneath all the heavens He sees,
to gauge the heft of the wind,
and to weigh water with a measure,
when He fixed a limit for rain,
and a way to the thunderhead,
Then He saw and recounted it,
set it firm and probed it, too.
And He said to man:
Look, fear of the Master, that is Wisdom,
and the shunning of evil is insight.
(Job 28:20-28)

The aphoristic concluding line is distinctly unlike the Voice from the Whirlwind not merely stylistically but also in the neatness of its sense of resolution. (Its formulaic pairing, however, of “wisdom” and “insight” is quite like the one God invokes in His initial challenge to Job.) In any case, the discrepancy in tone and attitude of the last line was no doubt far less important to whoever was responsible for the text of Job as we have it than the consonance of the hymn’s vision of God with the Voice from the Whirlwind — that is, a vision of God as the master of sight, searching out the unknowable ends of the earth.


Truth and Poetry in The Book of Job 1 – Robert Alter

February 10, 2014
William Blake, Satan Smiting Job With Sore Boils 1825. The biblical ‘Book of Job’ addresses the existence of evil and suffering in a world where a loving, all-powerful God exists. It has been described as ‘the most profound and literary work of the entire Old Testament’.In ‘Job’, God and Satan discuss the limits of human faith and endurance. God lets Satan force Job to undergo extreme trials and tribulations, including the destruction of his family. Despite this, as God predicted, Job’s faith remains unshaken and he is rewarded by God with the restoration of his health, wealth and family.

William Blake, Satan Smiting Job With Sore Boils 1825. The biblical ‘Book of Job’ addresses the existence of evil and suffering in a world where a loving, all-powerful God exists. It has been described as ‘the most profound and literary work of the entire Old Testament’.In ‘Job’, God and Satan discuss the limits of human faith and endurance. God lets Satan force Job to undergo extreme trials and tribulations, including the destruction of his family. Despite this, as God predicted, Job’s faith remains unshaken and he is rewarded by God with the restoration of his health, wealth and family.

Three decades ago, renowned literary expert Robert Alter radically expanded the horizons of, Biblical scholarship by recasting the Bible not only as a human creation. But also as a work of literary art deserving studied criticism. In The Art of Biblical Poetry, his companion to the seminal The Art of Biblical Narrative, Alter takes his analysis beyond narrative craft to investigate the distinctive working of Hebrew poetry in the Bible. Learned and lucid, sometimes polemical but always with grace, here he writes about the Book of Job. Enjoy the superb translations.


THE POWER OF Job’s unflinching argument, in the biblical book that bears his name, has rarely failed to move readers, but the structure of the book has been a perennial puzzle. It begins, as we all recall, with a seemingly naive tale: Job is an impeccably God-fearing man, happy in his children and in his abundant possessions. Unbenownst to him, in the celestial assembly the Adversary — despite the traditional translations, not yet a mythological Satan — challenges God to test the disinterestedness of Job’s piety by afflicting him. When Job, in rapid succession, has been bereft of all his various flocks and servants and then of all his children, and is stricken from head to foot with itching sores, he refuses his wife’s urging that he curse God and die but instead sits down in the dust in mournful resignation.

At this point, the prose of the frame-story switches into altogether remarkable poetry. The poetic Job begins by wishing he had never been born. Then, in three long rounds of debate, he confronts the three friends who have come with all the assurance of conventional wisdom to inform him that his suffering is certain evidence of his having done evil. Job consistently refuses to compromise the honesty of his own life, and in refuting the friends’ charges he repeatedly inveighs against God’s crushing unfairness.

Eventually, God answers Job out of a whirlwind, mainly to show how presumptuous this human critic of divine justice has been. Job concedes; the prose frame-story then clicks shut by restoring to Job health, wealth, and prestige, at the same time symmetrically providing him with another set of children.

This ending has troubled many readers over the centuries. Even if we put aside the closing of the folktale frame, so alien to later sensibilities in its schematic doubling of lost property and its simple replacement of lost lives, the Voice from the Whirlwind (or more properly, Storm) has seemed to some a rather exasperating answer to Job’s anguished questions.

The common objection to what is clearly intended as a grand climax of the poetic argument runs along the following lines: the Voice’s answer is no answer at all but an attempt to overwhelm poor Job by an act of cosmic bullying. Job, in his sense of outrage over undeserved suffering, has been pleading for simple justice. God ignores the issue of justice, not deigning to explain why innocent children should perish, decent men and women writhe in affliction, and instead sarcastically asks Job how good he is at hurling, lightning bolts, making the sun rise and set, causing rain to fall, fixing limits to the breakers of the sea. The clear implication is that if you can’t begin to play in my league, you should not have the nerve to ask questions about the rules of the game.

Some modern commentators have tried to get around such objections by arguing that the very inadequacy of the solution to the problem of theodicy at the end of Job is a testimony to the integrity of the book and to the profundity with which the questions have been raised. There is, in other words, no neat way to reconcile ethical monotheism with the fundamental fact that countless innocents suffer terrible fates through human cruelty, blind circumstance, natural disaster, disease, and genetic mishap.

Rather than attempt a pat answer, then, the Job poet was wise enough to imply that there could be no real answer and that the sufferer would have to be content with God’s sheer willingness to express His concern for His creatures. This reading of the Voice from the Whirlwind is up to a point plausible, but it may glide too easily over the fact that God’s speeches at the end have, after all, a specific content, which is articulated with great care and to the details of which we are presumably meant to attend carefully.

It has also been suggested that the “solution” to Job’s dilemma is in the essential act of revelation itself, whatever we think about what is said. That does seem a very biblical idea. Job never doubts God’s existence, but, precisely because he assumes in biblical fashion that God must be responsible for everything that happens in the world, he repeatedly wants to know why God now remains hidden, why He does not come out and confront the person on whom He has inflicted such acute suffering. The moment the Voice begins to address Job out of the storm, Job already has his answer: that, despite appearances to the contrary, God cares enough about man to reveal Himself to humankind, to give man some intimation of the order and direction of His creation.

This proposal about the importance of revelation at the end brings us a little closer, I think, to the actual intent of the two climactic divine discourses. What needs to be emphasized, however, considerably more than has been done is the essential role poetry plays in the imaginative realization of revelation. If the poetry of Job — at least when its often problematic text is fully intelligible — looms above all other biblical poetry in virtuosity and sheer expressive power, the culminating poem that God speaks out of the storm soars beyond everything that has preceded it in the book, the poet having wrought a poetic idiom even richer and more awesome than the one he gave Job. Through this gushing of poetic expression toward its own upper limits, the concluding speech helps us see the panorama of creation, as perhaps we could do only through poetry, with the eyes of God.

I realize that this last assertion may sound either hazily mystical or effusively hyperbolic, but what I am referring to is an aspect of the book that seems to have been knowingly designed by the poet and that to a large extent can be grasped, as I shall try to show, through close analytic attention to formal features of the poem. The entire speech from the storm not only is an effectively structured poem in itself but is finely calculated as a climactic development of images, ideas, and themes that appear in different and sometimes antithetical contexts earlier in the poetic argument.

In saying this, I do not by any means intend to dismiss the scholarly consensus that there are composite elements in the Book of Job, that it is not all the work of one hand. The most visible “seams” in the book are between the frame-story and the poetic argument, but this evident disjuncture is not really relevant to our concern with the Voice from the Whirlwind, and it makes little difference whether one regards the frame-story as an old folktale incorporated by the poet or (my own preference, based on a few tell-tale indications of Late Biblical Hebrew in the frame-story) as an old tradition artfully reworked by the poet in a consciously archaizing style.

Within the poetic argument itself, there is fairly general agreement among scholars that the Hymn to Wisdom, which is Chapter 28, and the Elihu speeches, Chapters 32-37, are interpolations for which the original Job poet was not responsible. I am not inclined to debate either of these judgments, but I should like to observe that the later poet and, in the case of Chapter 28, the editor who chose the poem from the literature of Wisdom psalms available to him were so alive to the culminating function of the Voice from the Whirlwind that they justified the inclusion of the additional material at least in part as anticipations of the concluding poem.

In fact, the claim made by some scholars that Chapters 38-41 are themselves an addition to the original text seems to me quite inadmissible precisely because the poetry of this final speech is so intricately and so powerfully a fulfillment of key elements in the body of the poetic argument.

There are, to begin with, occasional and significant adumbrations of the cosmic perspective of God at the end in the speeches of both Job and the Friends. Sometimes, in the case of the Friends, this is simply a matter of getting divine knowledge backward. Thus Eliphaz, in a speech asserting complacent confidence that God invariably destroys the evil man, draws an analogy from the animal kingdom:

“The lion’s roar, the maned beast’s sound — ,
and the young lions’ teeth are ; smashed.
The king of beasts dies with no prey, 
the whelps of the lion are scattered”

The point, presumably, is that in God’s just world even the fiercest of ravening beasts can be disabled, as seemingly powerful evildoers in the human sphere will get their comeuppance.

But this is to draw a general moral rule from a rare zoological case, and when God Himself evokes the lion (38:39) along with other beasts of prey, He recognizes unflinchingly that the real principle of the animal kingdom is that the strong devour the weak to sustain their own lives and those of their young. It is that harsher, more inassimilable truth that He chooses to make an integral part of His revelation to Job concerning the providential governance of the world.

More frequently, the Friends, as self-appointed defenders of God’s position, touch on certain notions that are actually in consonance with the divine speech at the end, but both the terms in which such notions are cast and the contexts in which they are set turn them into something jejune and superficial. In this regard, the Voice from the Whirlwind is a revelation of the contrast between the jaded half-truths of cliché and the startling, difficult truths exposed when the stylistic mid conceptual shell of cliché is broken open.

Thus Eliphaz, in one of i he Friends’ frequent appeals to the antiquity of received wisdom, upbraids Job: `

Are you the first man to be born,
before the hills were you spawned?
Did you listen at God’s high council,
take away wisdom for yourself?”

Eliphaz’s heightening of a sarcastic hyperbole from verset to verset (first born man — created before the world itself — a uniquely privileged member of God’s cosmogonic council) leads us to a point in some ways similar to God’s overwhelming challenge to Job at the beginning of His great speech.

But Eliphaz invokes creation in the smoothly formulaic language of poetic tradition, which is quite different from the vertiginous vision of the vastness of creation that God’s bolder language will offer. And Eliphaz speaks smugly without suspecting that there might be a chasm between divine knowledge and the conventional knowledge of accepted wisdom. This immediately becomes clear as he goes on to reduce his cosmogonic hyperbole to a mere competition of longevity with Job:

“What do you know that we don’t know,
understand, that is not with us?
The gray-haired and the aged are with us,
far older than your father”

A little earlier, there is a speech of Zophar’s that sounds even more like an anticipation of the Voice from the Whirlwind, but again the stylistic and attitudinal differences between human and divine discourse are crucially instructive.

Can you find what God has probed,
can you find Shaddai’s last end?
Higher than heaven, what can you do, deeper than Sheol,
what can you know?
Longer than earth is its measure,
and broader than the sea.

In the biblical way of thinking, all this is unexceptionable, and it would seem to accord perfectly with God’s own words in Chapter 38 about the unbridgeable gap between powerful Creator and limited creature. But the very smoothness of the stereotyped language Zophar uses (heights of heaven, depths of Sheol, longer than earth, broader than the sea) is a clue that this is a truth he has come by all too easily.

This suspicion is confirmed when he immediately proceeds to move from an affirmation of God’s power to the usual pat assertion that the all-knowing Creator detects all evil — by implication, to chastise the evildoers:

“Should He slip away or confine or assemble,
Who can resist Him ?
For He knows the empty folk,
He sees wrongdoing and surely takes note”

The actual prospect of God as sole master of the heights of heaven and the depths of hell is a staggering one as the Voice from the Whirlwind will make awesomely clear. Zophar’s speech there is too facile a transition from the invocation of that prospect to the time-worn notion that God will never allow crime to pay.


George Herbert and The Temple 2 – T.S. Eliot

January 29, 2014

Being born into an artistic and wealthy family, George Herbert received a good education that led to his holding prominent positions at Cambridge University and Parliament. As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, Herbert excelled in languages and music. He went to college with the intention of becoming a priest, but his scholarship attracted the attention of King James I/VI. Herbert served in Parliament for two years. After the death of King James and at the urging of a friend, Herbert’s interest in ordained ministry was renewed. In 1630, in his late thirties he gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as a rector of the little parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, near Salisbury. He was noted for unfailing care for his parishioners, bringing the sacraments to them when they were ill, and providing food and clothing for those in need. Henry Vaughan said of him “a most glorious saint and seer”.

I find Herbert to be closer in spirit to Donne than is any other of `the school of Donne’. As the personal bond, through Lady Herbert, was much closer, this seems only natural. Other powerful literary influences formed the manner of Crashaw, the Roman Catholic convert: the Italian poet Marino and the Spanish poet Gongora, and, we are told, [By Mario Praz, whose Seicentismo e rnarinisrno in Inghilterra is essential for the study of Crashaw in particular.] the Jesuit poets who wrote in Latin.

Vaughan and Traherne were poets of mystical experience: each appears to have experienced early in life some mystical illumination which inspires his poetry. And the other important poet of the `metaphysical’ school, Andrew Marvell, is a master of secular and religious poetry equally. In my attempt to indicate the affinity of Herbert to Donne, and also the difference between them, I have spoken earlier of a `balance’ between the intellect and the sensibility.

But equally well (for one has recourse to diverse and even mutually contradictory metaphors and images to express the inexpressible) we can speak of a `fusion of intellect and sensibility in different proportions. In the work of a later generation of metaphysicals’ — notably Cleveland, Benlowes and Cowley — we encounter a kind of emotional drought, and a verbal ingenuity which, having no great depth of feeling to work upon, tends towards corruption of language, and merits the censure which Samuel Johnson applies indiscriminately to all the `school of Donne.’

To return to the import of The Temple for all perceptive readers whether they share Herbert’s faith or no. Professor Knights quotes with approval Dr. Hutchinson’s description of the poems as colloquies of the soul with God or self-communings which seek to bring order into that complex personality of his which he analyses so unsparingly, but goes on to make a qualification which seems to me very important. Dr. Hutchinson believes that Herbert’s principal temptation was ambition.

We need not deny that Herbert had been, like many other men, ambitious; we know that he had a hot temper; we know that he liked fine clothes and fine company, and would have been pleased by preferment at Court. But beside the struggle to abandon thought of the attractions offered to worldly ambition, Professor Knights finds `a dejection of spirit that tended to make him regard his own life, the life he was actually leading, as worthless and unprofitable’.

Mr. Knights attributes the cause partly to ill-health, but still more to a more ingrained distrust. It was perhaps distrust of himself, or fear of testing his powers among more confident men, that drove him to the shelter of an obscure parsonage. He had, Mr. Knights suggests, to rid himself of the torturing sense of frustration and impotence and accept the validity of his own experience. If this is so, Herbert’s weakness became the source of his greatest power, for the result was The Temple.

I have called upon Mr. Knights’s testimony in evidence that Herbert is not a poet whose work is significant only for Christian readers; that The Temple is not to be taken as simply a devotional handbook of meditation for the faithful, but as the personal record of a man very conscious of weakness and failure, a man of intellect and sensibility who hungered and thirsted after righteousness. And that by its content, as well as because of its technical accomplishment, it is a work of importance for every lover of poetry. This is not, however, to suggest that it is unprofitable for us to study the text for closer understanding, to acquaint ourselves with the liturgy of the Church, with the traditional imagery of the Church, and identify the Biblical allusions.

One long poem which has been subjected to close examination is The Sacrifice. There are sixty-three stanzas of three lines each, sixty-one of which have the refrain Was ever grief like Mine? I mention this poem, which is a very fine one, and not so familiar as are some of the shorter and more lyrical pieces, because it has been carefully studied by Professor William Empson in his Seven Types of Ambiguity, and by Miss Rosamund Tuve in her A Reading of George Herbert.

The lines are to be taken as spoken by Christ upon the Cross. We need, of course, enough acquaintance with the New Testament to recognize references to the Passion. But we are also better prepared if we recognize the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the Reproaches in the Mass of the Pre-sanctified which is celebrated on Good Friday.

Celebrant: I led thee forth out of Egypt, drowning Pharaoh in the Red Sea: and thou hast delivered me up unto the chief priests.

Deacon & Subdeacon: O my people, what have I done unto thee, or wherein have I wearied thee, Testify against me.

It is interesting to note that Mr. Empson and Miss Tuve differ in their interpretation of the following stanza:

O all ye who passe by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climbe the tree;
The tree of life to all, but onely me:

Was ever grief like mine?

Mr. Empson comments: `He climbs the tree to repay what was stolen, as if he were putting the apple back’; and develops this explanation at some length. Upon this interpretation Miss Tuve observes rather tartly: `All (Mr. Empson’s) rabbits roll out of one small hat — the fact that Herbert uses the time-honored `climb’ for the ascent of the Cross, and uses the word `must’, to indicate a far deeper necessity than that which faces a small boy under a big tree.’ Certainly, the image of replacing the apple which has been plucked is too ludicrous to be entertained for a moment. It is obvious that Christ `climbs’ or is `lifted’ up on the Cross in atonement for the sin of Adam and Eve; the verb `climb’ being used traditionally to indicate the voluntary nature of the sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Herbert was, assuredly, familiar with the imagery used by the pre-Reformation Church. It is likely also that Donne, learned in the works of the scholastics, and also in the writings of such Roman theologians contemporary with himself as Cardinal Bellarmine, set a standard of scholarship which Herbert followed.

To cite such an instance as this, however, is not to suggest that the lover of poetry needs to prepare himself with theological and liturgical knowledge before approaching Herbert’s poetry. That would be to put the cart before the horse. With the appreciation of Herbert’s poems, as with all poetry, enjoyment is the beginning as well as the end. We must enjoy the poetry before we attempt to penetrate the poet’s mind; we must enjoy it before we understand it, if the attempt to understand it is to be worth the trouble.

We begin by enjoying poems, and lines in poems, which make an immediate impression; only gradually, as we familiarize ourselves with the whole work, do we appreciate The Temple as a coherent sequence of poems setting down the fluctuations of emotion between despair and bliss, between agitation and serenity, and the discipline of suffering which leads to peace of spirit.

The relation of enjoyment to belief — the question whether a poem has more to give us if we share the beliefs of its author, is one which has never been answered satisfactorily: the present writer has made some attempt to contribute to the solution of the problem, and remains dissatisfied with his attempts. But one thing is certain: that even if the reader enjoys a poem more fully when he shares the beliefs of the author, he will miss a great deal of possible enjoyment and of valuable experience if he does not seek the fullest understanding possible of poetry in reading which he must `suspend his disbelief’. (The present writer is very thankful for having had the opportunity to study the Bhagavad Gītā and the religious and philosophical beliefs, so different from his own, with which the Bhagavad Gītā is informed.)

Some of the poems in The Temple express moods of anguish and sense of defeat or failure:

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetnesses;
I had my wish and way:
My dayes were straw’d with flow’rs and happinesse;
There was no moneth but May.
But with my yeares sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a partie unawares for wo…

Yet, though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weaknesse must be stout.
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my deare God! though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.

The foregoing lines are from the first of five poems all of which bear the title Affliction. In the first of two poems both of which are entitled `The Temper, he speaks of his fluctuations of faith and feeling:

How should I praise thee, Lord! how should my rymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

The great danger, for the poet who would write religious verse, is that of setting down what he would like to feel rather than be faithful to the expression of what he really feels. Of such pious insincerity Herbert is never guilty. We need not look too narrowly for a steady progress in Herbert’s religious life, in an attempt to discover a chronological order. He falls, and rises again. Also, he was accustomed to working over his poems; they may have circulated in manuscript among his intimates during his lifetime. What we can confidently believe is that every poem in the book is true to the poet’s experience. In some poems there is a more joyous note, as in `Whitsunday’:

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flue away with thee…

Lord, though we change, thou art the same;
The same sweet God of love and light:
Restore this day, for thy great name,
Unto his ancient and miraculous right.

In The Flower we hear the note of serenity, almost of beatitude, and of thankfulness for God’s blessings:

How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.’

A. Alvarez in The School of Donne says justly of this last stanza: “This is, I suppose, the most perfect and most vivid stanza in the whole of Herbert’s work. But it is, in every sense, so natural that its originality is easily missed.” I cannot resist the thought that in this last stanza — itself a miracle of phrasing — the imagery, so apposite to express the achievement of faith which it records, is taken from the experience of the man of delicate physical health who had known much illness.

It is on this note of joy in convalescence of the spirit in surrender to God, that the life of discipline of this haughty and irascible Herbert finds conclusion: In His will is our peace.


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