Christianity in the Modernist Period: Hopkins, Eliot, and Auden

One of the main figures of the Modernist period is the isolated and alienated individual who is disillusioned with the security of tradition, home, and God.  The stable world had been fractured, and the writers’ recourse was to make new forms and to fashion meaning, however they could, for themselves.  Yet, while many poets abandoned their Christian faith, others continued to believe.  With Hopkins and Auden at the two ends of the Modernist period, and with Eliot at its height, Christianity didn’t simply vanish.  For the believers, Christianity was personalized, wrested from the straights of orthodoxy and also from the blandness of a nominal faith.  Ironically, in a Modernist way, with an emphasis on subjective experience and anti-traditionalism, Christianity provided an answer for some poets facing the Modernist predicament of lost innocence and despair.

Hopkins            Although Gerard Manley Hopkins was an ascetic man who turned Catholic and momentarily abandoned writing for religious reasons, his poetry delights in immediacy and variety and also breaks with standard conventions.  For these reasons, if he is not exactly Modern, then he is at least proto-Modern.  For Hopkins, God is not a dry abstraction contained in the dogmas of the church, rather He is experienced directly and personally.  As he say, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” and everything, not just nature, but “all trade” too, seems to be imbued with God’s glory.  Thus, in “Pied Beauty,” Hopkins praises God for the rich texture and variety of everything; and in other poems as well, he packs image after image into each line, gathering things together to show their connectedness.  Even though the world might appear chaotic, fragmented, and Heraclitean, there is a unity, an energy, that can be apprehended by immediate sense perception, such as when “kingfishes catch fire” or “dragonflies draw flame.”  This occurs at an epiphanic moment, when the essence of a thing is revealed, almost as if the imminence of God’s glory (what Hopkins calls the “instress”) radiates beyond the appearance of the particular object.  Furthermore, like other Modernists, Hopkins also expresses his despair, such as in “Carrion Comfort.”  However, Hopkins doesn’t abandon God; instead, he struggles with giving into despair and wrestles with God.  Even in the darkness, Hopkins has a relationship with God that is so personal that he is bold enough to confront Him.  In the last line, not only does he wrestle like Jacob, but he also calls out like Christ, “(my God!) my God,” which heightens both his own suffering and his intimacy with God.

Few other poets have captured the sense of meaningless and alienation as T. S. Eliot has depicted in his early poems.  His character J. Alfred Prufock seems to shuffle upon the scene, sad, lonely, and lethargic, lamenting the frivolity of a tea party.  Even though nothing momentous is at stake, because nothing has real importance, Prufrock still struggles to find something valuable to say, but it constantly eludes him, which further adds to his isolation.  Every time he repeats, “That is not what I meant at all,” he becomes more disconnected from the people he tries to reach.  All the attempts at connection, such as the tea party, don’t seem to “have been worth while.”  He imagines that perhaps Lazarus coming back from the dead would wake people from their mundane lives, but Prufrock leaves Lazarus’s words unspoken.  The Bible has a couple stories about different Lazaruses, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus seems to fit nicely.  In the parable, the rich man doesn’t worry about the afterlife until it is too late, for he dies and finds himself doomed.  Then, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn people, particularly the rich man’s brothers, of the extreme stakes of life: the torments of hell or the bliss of heaven.  Yet, Abraham responds that they won’t be persuaded even if someone comes back from the dead.  In Prufrock’s mind, the predicament is even worse.  Not only are the people too indifferent, stubborn, or inane to listen, but also there is nothing to tell them.  There are no extreme stakes; nothing is worthwhile.  In Eliot’s early poetry, when his alienated people turn inward, they find their mind in fragments and their nerves fragile and “bad tonight.”  Meanwhile, the hollow men greet the end of the world with whimper.

ts-eliot1  After depicting the general malaise and spiritual crisis of a culture, Eliot found a solution in 1927; he converted to Christianity.  He wrote about his experience in “Ariel Poems.”  The most famous of these is “Journey of the Magi.”  In the first stanza, the towns and cities appear similar to the places in his previous poems, with men “cursing and grumbling” and wanting “their liquor and women.”  From a religious perspective, it “was all folly.”  Then, in the next stanza, “at dawn,” they smell the vegetation, which symbolizes rebirth; a running stream “beating the darkness, ” which recalls the springs of living water that Christ promised and also spiritual darkness; the “three trees,” a clear image of Calvary; and “an old white horse,” which is what Christ rides triumphantly at the end of time (Rev 19:11).  Following the positive Christian imagery appears the brutal world again, in additional Christian imagery, with the detached, impersonal hands grubbing at the “pieces of silver and feet, / And feet kicking the empty wine skins.”  The stanza ends with the magi finally arriving at the nativity scene.  The last word of this stanza is probably the most ambiguous in the poem: “satisfactory.”  On the literal level, while the journey is richly rendered, this word is the only description that the magi give for Christ’s birthplace.  It feels anticlimactic and somewhat bland.  Yet, on a spiritual level, it answers the very crisis of the soul.  Because sin separates people from God, Jesus functions as the propitiation for people’s sins.  On the cross, he “satisfies” the wrath the God and, thus, enables people access to God.  The magi use a very theologically-loaded term, which is simultaneously banal.

This ambiguity carries over into the final stanza.  Now that the magi have been converted, they fill displaced in their old homes.  Their previous life is now “the old dispensation,” and their old friends and neighbors are now “an alien people clutching their gods.”  Like true Modernists, they feel disconnected.  Rather than waiting for the world to end with a whimper, they anticipate “another death” when they would be rescued out of the world.  Meanwhile, they have to continue living.  Despite the unseen cosmic drama of salvation, and perhaps even if the whole sky were aswarm with angels, the magi merely see the low grime of life.  Obviously, the story of the magi is informed by Eliot’s own conversion.  Thus, Christianity is presented through a subjective experience, which is full of the ambiguity and isolation that characterize the Modernist individual.

W. H. Auden appears at the tail end of the Modernist period.  Although he was initially inspired by the fragmented psyche in Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and the salubrious eroticism in Lawrence, Auden soon began to pull away from Modernism.  In one sense, by rejecting the Modernist tradition, he exemplified the Modernist credo, championed by Pound, to “make it new.”  When he finally adopts Christianity in 1940, he lifts it out of orthodoxy and convention, and makes his faith a matter of personal experience.  Although fellow poets and critics, such as Philip Larkin and Randall Jarrell, define Auden’s conversion as a definitive and lamentable moment in his career, the seeds of his faith appear earlier, the most noticeable feature being his concern for humanity, which manifested itself in politics and Marxism.

auden  According to Auden, the first seed goes back to 1933, when he felt a mystical experience of love.  He records this moment, which he calls the Vision of Agape, in the poem “A Summer Night,” when he is sitting with several colleagues and feels himself connected to them.  More clearly in the original version, the enchanted circle has an innate problem: while they feel united, the larger community is outside and suffering.  The circle is only peaceful by its exclusion of the larger world.  Even so, this vision of love remains with Auden.  In January 1937, he revisits it in his poem “Lullaby.”  This time the circle is smaller; it is only two individuals; thus, he calls this the Vision of Eros.  Through erotic experience, the speaker tries to reach to a mystical love, in which the sanctity of the lover is revealed.  However, the moment is only transitory.  The vision of Venus, along with beauty and the evening itself, will die.  This problem of time appears in other poems also.  In “As I Walked Out One Evening,” the clock mocks the lovers.  Thus, even when elevated to a mystical experience, love has not only the problem of exclusion but also of time.

Since Auden regards the Vision of Eros and the Vision of Agape in a hierarchical order that places them beneath the Vision of God, the love in his early poems prefigures his experience of divine love.  One consequence of his conversion is his understanding that poetry cannot express truth, because truth is revealed directly and existentially by God.  Thus, his poetry develops a dual consciousness; while a serious voice speaks, another voice often intervenes to ridicule it and, thus, to keep the poet humble.  He tries to solve the problem of exclusion by turning his poetry into a public voice that embraces community, by commemorating persons and events and dedicating his poems to people.  The problem of time is solved by eternity.  Also, in life, all love is just a mirror of divine love, and a divine gift too.

Perhaps, it appears counter-intuitive to discuss the Christian element in a period that is defined by its loss of faith.  For many poets, the Christian message is just one more voice in a discordant choir, all blathering with no special significance.  At best, it becomes something that can be incorporated into the poet’s personal expression of meaning, used as a tool or fashioned into a new symbol.  In Larkin’s “Church Going,” the church has lost its sanctity but yet remains a “serious house” for “marriage, and birth, / And death.”  Perhaps, this is slightly more hopeful than Neitzsche’s madman with his lantern in the morning, who proclaims God’s death and calls the churches “the tombs and sepulchers of God.”  Yet, obviously some poets embraced Christianity, but not as a matter of custom or norm, but individually and seriously, as an answer to the spiritual crisis of the period.



Michael James Rizza has an MA in creative writing from Temple University in Philadelphia and a PhD in American Literature from the University of South Carolina. He has published academic articles on Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, Harold Frederic, and Adrienne Rich. His award winning novel Cartilage and Skin was published by Starcherone Books in November 2013. His short fiction has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Switchback, and Curbside Splendor. He has won various awards for his writing, including a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His scholarly monograph entitled The Topographical Imagination of Jameson, Baudrillard, Foucault, is forthcoming with Davies Group, Publishers. He is currently at work on a funny, fast paced, literary novel called Domestic Men’s Fiction. He teaches at Kean University. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Robin and their son Wilder, who was named after a character in DeLillo’s White Noise.

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