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Through a glass darkly: how poetry allows God to be seen

12 February 2016

Malcolm Guite explores poetry as a means of apprehending the inapprehensible


The wisdom of humility: T.S. Eliot in 1956

The wisdom of humility: T.S. Eliot in 1956

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one

When they combine and mingle, bring

A strong regard and awe: but speech alone

Doth vanish like a flaring thing . . .


IN THESE lines from “The Windows”, George Herbert puts his finger on the problem of doctrine presented as a thin formulation in speech rather than as a more viscerally and imaginatively apprehended reality.

In the poem, he is puzzling over how doctrine can be effectively preached, and reaches for the metaphor of the translucent colour in a window, as a hint of how the richness of doctrine might be “anealed” into our lives as they are lived.

The poem itself helps us to ask the question: how might poetry help us to formulate our doctrine of God, and also to apprehend both the reach and the limitations of those formulations, once they have been made?


IT SEEMS to me that poetry has three particular gifts to offer us here: metaphor, paradox, and humility.

All language is to some degree figurative and metaphorical, but poetic language more deliberately, more clearly, more consciously so — in the very attention that poetry pays to metaphor, as a word gestures beyond itself towards the image that it suggests; and the image itself reaches out towards a greater reality that it represents.

In great poetry, carefully arranged images are capable of becoming symbols in the full sense that the poet Coleridge gave to that term when he said:

The Symbol is characterised by . . . the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is representative.

(“The Statesman’s Manualin Lay Sermons).


One of the first things that poetry can do is to give us richly textured and symbolic language with which to explore our doctrines. Take, for example, the doctrine of God’s “omnipresence”: the “dry-eyed Latin word” (to borrow Seamus Heaney’s phrase) does nothing to suggest the rich possibilities that lie behind it.

When John Donne rephrases “omnipresent” in a sermon by saying that “God is replenishingly everywhere”, he comes closer to opening these riches. But he comes closer still when he insistently plays with the little word “all” in his poem on the Annunciation — a poem that teases out the paradox of how, through the incarnation, that omnipresence might be paradoxically concentrated in one place: “That All, which always is all everywhere . . . Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie In prison, in thy womb.”

Here “all” and “everywhere” are themselves as words, but also point to their opposites, in a poem that is one long compacted paradox.


HERBERT brings the resources of poetry to tease out this doctrine of omnipresence in another way, but playing on the same word, in his poem Providence:


Thou art in small things great, not small in any:

Thy even praise can neither rise, nor fall.

Thou art in all things one, in each thing many:

For thou art infinite in one and all.


Here the very sound of “all” is carried, in its own small omnipresence, through the repeating cadences in each line, echoing the word “all”: “small . . . small . . . fall . . . all . . . all”.

But the real achievement of this verse is that, even as it relaxes us with the cadence of its music, it alerts us with its insistent paradox, its juxtapositions of “small” and “great”, “infinite” and “one”.

After metaphor itself, insistent paradox is one of the gifts that poetry can offer in helping us to apprehend the power of our own doctrinal formulations.

Indeed, from Arianism onwards, heresy always arises from the refusal of paradox.


PARADOXICALLY, however, the third gift that poetry has to offer is not an affirmation, but a negation of the power of any formulation. Because poets push language to the limit, they are especially aware that language has its limits. Often a poet’s greatest art is to bring us to the brink of language, and gesture wordlessly beyond it.

This is especially T. S. Eliot’s art in his greatest achievement, Four Quartets. The fifth section of each quartet constantly returns to his theme of words that “strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden . . . Decay with imprecision” (“Burnt Norton”).

Even the radiant spiritual poetry of these quartets has, as it were watermarked into every page, Eliot’s explicit confession of the limitations of language: “only . . . Hints followed by guesses” (“The Dry Salvages”).

All of that is summed up in two lines from “East Coker”:


The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.


C. S. Lewis, who in his prose was not shy of formulating and explicating the doctrine of God, also came through poetry to this position of kenosis, of a self-emptying humility about the adequacy of language, beautifully expressed in his “Apologist’s Evening Prayer”, where he likens thoughts to coins with their “thin-worn image of Thy head”, and goes on, “even from my thoughts of Thee O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.”


IN CONCLUSION, one might say that poetry can be the friend and ally of the doctrinal theologian, but it will also be like the slave in the chariot of the triumphal emperor whose job was to keep whispering in his ear: “You, too, are mortal.”

Perhaps we should let Tennyson, whose work seems so often to embody the triumph of language, have the last word — not only about the limitations of language, but the limitations of all systematic thought by finite minds in the presence of an infinite God — in this verse, from his preface to In Memoriam:


Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.


The Revd Dr Malcolm Guite is the Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge.

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