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Book review: Lands of Likeness: For a poetics of contemplation by Kevin Hart

16 February 2024

George Pattison on theology and literature

KEVIN HART’s work has long been marked by a distinctive crossing of literary studies, philosophy, and theology — each of which is present in his latest book. Hart’s focus here is on the idea of contemplation, which he conceives of as a distinctive mode of mental life, a kind of thinking which is different both from argument and from the kind of discursive thinking typically connected to images and texts.

While “contemplation” has an eminent application to the mind’s relation to God, Hart does not, however, limit it, as St Thomas Aquinas does, to “beholding God”. Rather, taking a cue from Richard of St Victor, the author sees contemplation of God as the ultimate term of a sequence of kinds of mental attention, such as “consideration”, which, in Richard’s usage, can also be applied to sensible and intelligible (but non-divine) realities.

What is at issue here is further developed through Schopenhauer’s and Coleridge’s respective calls to attend to the essential ideas of things, a kind of attention that receives a more rigorous and definitive articulation in Husserl’s phenomenological attitude, leading us towards the hermeneutics of contemplation which Hart is seeking.

This is not necessarily theological, although certain kinds of contemplation can bring us close to the theological. In the modern age, in which the idea of divine contemplation has become progressively obscured, learning to read in the manner of such a hermeneutics can perhaps prepare us for the more fully theological contemplation, even if it is typical of the modern poets whom Hart goes on to review that God is, at best, eclipsed — if not outrightly denied. Nevertheless, the world itself can offer materials for a training in contemplation, but, left to itself, lures us to what Hart calls “fascination”.

Having set out his theoretical framework, Hart applies it to a sequence of poets, starting with a poet and poem that invite a truly theological contemplation — Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover”, which Hart describes as “a brief natural theology”. From this high point, Hart reverses to Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”, a poem of “severe curtailments” which exemplifies a fascination that cannot rise higher than the clay of which we are made and to which we return.

Wallace Stevens offers examples of something like what the Victorine called “consideration”, although, in the end, this is deemed to be more like toying with the aesthetic attitude than attempting to satisfy “a spiritual need for the kingdom”. The contemporary American poet A. R. Ammons seems to approach something very like a contemplative attitude, but, in one of Ammons’s own phrases, his work is “On course but destinationless” — although the conclusion of Hart’s discussion does hint at a more positive reading.

Finally, comes Geoffrey Hill’s long poem “The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy”. Hans Urs von Balthasar identified Péguy as exemplifying a theological aesthetics, but Hill’s Péguy seems not to rise above the horizon of the moral and political. Nevertheless, deploying an image that recurs throughout Lands of Likeness, the poem serves (as Hart thinks the best poetry can) as a kind of templum (Hart favours the Latin term) “in which we see an example of radical human life and an exemplary way in which to live it. To read it with all due care would be to become more deeply human.”

The main work done in Lands of Likeness is these finely detailed and careful readings that bring to the fore the interaction between the literary development of the poem in question and its theological intention or, more typically, the failure (accidental or deliberate) of theological intention.

Almost inevitably, Lands of Likeness will speak most to those for whom Hart’s choice of poets and works resonates with their own readerly preferences, and, as the word “contemplation” itself already suggests, those who feel the need to decelerate the rushed tempo of a world that is experienced as being “too much with us” (Wordsworth). In this respect (as he several times implicitly acknowledges), Hart stands in the line of literary Romanticism which continues to inform a significant tranche of the work that goes on at the intersection of theology and literature.

Broadly speaking, this is in line with the tendency of Hart’s philosophical-theological modelling of a hermeneutics of contemplation, which, despite due concessions to modernity, offers a kind of Platonism which will certainly be attractive to many theological readers, not least those to whom Radical Orthodoxy also appeals.

Those more affirming of the necessary secularity of contemporary Christian existence — and writing — will pause, take note, and appreciate, before re-engaging with the prosaic worldly tasks that claim their more urgent attention.

The Revd Professor George Pattison holds the 1640 Chair of Divinity in the University of Glasgow.


Lands of Likeness: For a poetics of contemplation
Kevin Hart
Chicago University Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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