Introduction [Literature and Theology]

T. Day

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


‘Poetry and Belief’, the theme of this special issue, is not necessarily a harmonious marriage. Where belief means religious belief it may in fact signal something perceived as damaging to poetic credibility, in a predominately secular society especially: for ‘belief’ read ‘complacent and intellectually disreputable adherence to “that loathsome system of torture–worship”’, as William Empson characterised Christianity,1 or to some other form of institutionalised oppression—hardly conditions conducive to the plastic thinking that is poetry’s prerogative. Helen Vendler has put a related case for literature ‘over against the sacred, as an element quintessentially profane – embodying, as Yeats said, impulses diametrically opposed to the cultic, communal, ritualised impulses served by religion’;2 and it is these associations of religious belief, of an institutional conformism that suffocates individuality, ‘that led’, Vincent Buckley suggests, ‘Bonhoeffer to call for a “religion-less Christianity”’.3 Such a calling may also be George Herbert’s in ‘The Collar’, a poem which gives voice to just this perception of an antagonism between poetry and belief, the speaker railing against a religion that is felt to constrain creativity: ‘My lines and life are free’, he reproaches God, or himself. But there is the attendant discovery at the end of that poem, in the half-heard word to which he responds almost in spite of himself yet in a way neither tortured nor systematic, that poetry has no real prerogatives, and that the impulse to write consists, not in any theoretical freedom, but in, as Lucy Beckett has written, ‘trust[ing] a tradition in which to think, to judge, to live … that confirms our experience of what we have found – using, quietly, words we cannot do without’
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalLiterature and Theology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2011


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