Old Poetry Illuminates Older Theology

A single story, a single poem, a single song: the individual work of art has the undeniable power of unity, the power to stun by its clarity of vision. I am moved by that power. At times I have listened to the same song on repeat for days, transcribed a poem and taped it above my desk, kept a novel on my nightstand as if its mere presence could quiet my sleep. There are songs that make us sing to ourselves before we even realize we’re singing, poems that make us repeat their words in whispers when our minds are only idly wandering.

But it is not the power of the individual work of art that most moves me; no single story or poem made me an English major, and no single work of art made me an art lover. I have found art’s greatest power not in any one work’s euphony but rather in the dissonance generated when many works of art clash, when multiple artistic visions of human experience—each convincing from its own perspective—are thrown together, set loose to wrestle with one another. Then monologue becomes conversation, and I am challenged not only to appreciate diversity of vision but to try—if I dare—to make sense of that diversity, to build bridges between superficially disparate worldviews, to figure out what common sentiment animates the art that moves me. I love art because I love making connections.

The other day I found one of those unexpected connections in the most unlikely of places. Working my ponderous way through Pseudo-Dionysius’s mystical treatise on the “Divine Names” for class, I noticed that the translator made not only helpful distillations of sometimes mind-numbing theological principles in the margins; he also took it upon himself to cite apparently relevant Romantic poetry. I can make no informed speculation about the connection between sixth-century mystical theology and nineteenth-century Romantic poetry, but there it was, as my translator had set it out: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “After-Thought”—not a particularly well-known poem of his—quoted in the margins of my copy of “Divine Names.”

By then I was tired enough of theology to hope for respite in poetry, so I pulled up “After-Thought” on Google and read it through. The force of unexpected, edifying connection immediately overwhelmed me. My translator’s obscure connection made all I’d been reading at last make sense. There in Tennyson was Psuedo-Dionysius’s “Via Negativa,” the negative approach to God through emphasizing God’s ultimate inscrutability. Dionysius’s is a mysterious God, and Tennyson’s is a mysterious hope—but neither is any less forceful for being shrouded in mystery.

Tennyson’s sonnet, written more than a thousand years after Dionysius’s theology, was animated by the same spirit; once again art proved to me the consistent depth of human experience across boundaries of culture and time. Much as Dionysius speaks of a God who transcends all names, Tennyson speaks of a hope that transcends death: “And if, as toward the silent tomb we go, / Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower, / We feel that we are greater than we know.”

It’s an idea I still need to work through, but it’s also one I would never have understood at all were it not for the elegance of art that makes connections, art that prompts me to see unity undergirding diversity. Far from reducing all art to one monotonous note, I feel the pulsing unified rhythm animating each distinct work, giving each unique voice its timbre.

Over the past couple days, Tennyson’s poem has become one of those voices that captivates me, working its way calmly under my skin. I love the conversation; but the conversation is, after all, only a multiplication of many single voices. And it is Tennyson’s lone voice I thank for his beautiful poem, for the words I’ll be whispering to myself before I even realize I’m speaking: “We feel that we are greater than we know.”

—Columnist Adam T. Horn can be reached at adamhorn@college.harvard.edu.

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